In his 1998 profile of beloved children’s TV personality Fred Rogers, journalist Tom Junod wrote that “there was an energy to him … a fearlessness, an unashamed insistence on intimacy.”
In A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which is based on Junod’s article, director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) and co-writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster (both of TV’s Transparent), put their faith in the idea that moviegoers will be just as enamored as Junod was by the idyllic spirit of Mr. Rogers — and the legacy he left behind.
Heller isn’t concerned with the nostalgia brimming from the 31 years Rogers hosted PBS’s Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, although there are a handful of trips to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe to satisfy the biggest fans of puppet characters like King Friday XIII, Daniel Striped Tiger and Henrietta Pussycat. Instead, Heller wants audiences to feel an affinity for Rogers himself. With two-time Oscar winner and “America’s dad” Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump) portraying the soft-spoken Rogers, that’s not a difficult request.
What is harder to accept, however, is the narrative decision by Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster to tell Rogers’ story through an intermediary. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not a film about Rogers as much as it is a project centered on how Rogers affects the life of a newfound friend. That friend is Junod — whose name is changed in the film to Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) — a journalist assigned to interview Rogers for a series on American heroes for Esquire magazine.
Lloyd is a broken man with deep anger stemming from his relationship with his estranged father (Chris Cooper), who comes back into his life to try to make amends for inflicting years of emotional pain on his son. Through Lloyd’s animosity toward his father, Heller and her team try to show the goodness and purity Rogers exudes with everyone he meets. It’s a bold move to produce a Mr. Rogers movie and not actually place Mr. Rogers center stage, but the choice to funnel the script through Lloyd’s suffering is a bit underwhelming.
Maybe it’s because Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster decided there just wasn’t enough conflict inside Rogers’ own storyline to shape it into something compelling enough for the big screen. Viewers, however, were given a glimpse of what a feature narrative film could have been during last year’s critically acclaimed Won’t You Be My Neighbor. That documentary examined Rogers’ career and how he used his TV show to tackle weighty issues such as divorce, racial tensions and war.
Still, as safe and insulated as A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is, it’s almost impossible not to be entranced by its charms. It’s innocuous, yes, but it’s also as comforting as a warm cardigan sweater.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood hits San Antonio theaters November 22.