Director Marielle Heller frames “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” as if it were an episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” with miniature sets of cars and bridges to illustrate New York and Pittsburgh. Fred Rogers, played with clear-eyed purpose by Tom Hanks, introduces the audience to the film’s protagonist, journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), in that all-too-familiar living room where he’s just changed into his sneakers and sweater.
But “A Beautiful Day” is not a children’s story at all. It’s a story about a man who suffers from the doubly impossible combination of being an adult and an investigative journalist. In other words, he’s the person least likely to be charmed by the straightforward sincerity of someone like Rogers.
The film is loosely based on Tom Junod’s article “Can You Say ... ‘Hero’?” for Esquire magazine in November 1998. Junod has said that spending time with the then 70-year-old changed him. Cynical at first, the two formed a friendship — Junod’s first with a subject — that would last until Rogers’ death in 2003.
The similarities stop there, and the film veers in its own direction, adding drama and elements that are not part of Junod’s life at all (like getting into a fistfight with his father at his sister’s wedding, neither of which happened). But as Junod writes this month in the Atlantic, the film “seems like a culmination of the gifts that Fred Rogers gave me and all of us, gifts that fit the definition of grace because they feel, at least in my case, undeserved.”
Essentially, Rogers’ lessons can apply to adults, too. And “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” spins its magic to show us how, no matter if it’s mostly fiction from the minds of screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster.
The film introduces Lloyd at a particularly unstable moment. He’s got a newborn son with his wife, Andrea (an understated and excellent Susan Kelechi Watson), and his long-estranged father (Chris Cooper) has suddenly started trying to come back into his life. It’s under these high-pressure circumstances that his editor (Christine Lahti) assigns him to write a “small piece” about Rogers for the magazine’s “heroes issue.” Lloyd scoffs at what he considers a demeaning assignment; the host of a cheesy children’s show is, he thinks, below him. Andrea asks her husband, knowing what kind of writer he is, to please not ruin her childhood.
He remains skeptical even upon meeting Fred and goes back to his editor to ask for more time, saying that he “just doesn’t think he’s for real.” Sure, it’s easy to think Lloyd is a monster. But consider his point of view: Fred uses puppets during their interview and deflects quite a bit on the more pressing questions, often asking about his interviewer instead of answering.
And yet, Fred’s goodness starts to transcend all of that. Heller does a marvelous job illustrating the effect Fred has on those around him. Even the production staff whom he infuriates by spending too long with visitors falls in line when he starts to work his magic in front of the camera. They know they’re making something special.
One scene that seems almost too schmaltzy to be true, in which a subway car full of adults and children serenades Fred with his show’s theme song, actually happened.
Hanks is such an obvious choice to play someone as beloved as Rogers that his performance is something that could be in danger of being taken for granted or overlooked. He just makes it all look so easy — the almost uncomfortably slow way that he speaks. But it’s a testament to Hanks that you can’t “see” the work. But much like Rogers, you don’t have to understand it to be moved.
What “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” • 3½ stars out of four • Run time 1:48 • Rating PG • Content Some strong thematic material, a brief fight and some mild language