While not all the right notes are consistently played in Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, it’s the performance of one beloved actor playing one beloved children’s show host that makes it worthwhile. The film isn’t as much about Mister Rogers as it is the feelings he gives people through his demeanor and work. Portrayed by Tom Hanks, it’s an impeccable casting choice to witness.
Neighborhood is set in 1998, as Mister Rogers is introduced to Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), Esquire. Not an attorney, but he’s a prolific writer for Esquire magazine. Lloyd, who lives in New York City with his wife (Susan Kelechi Watson) and infant son, typically deals with weighty issues in his journalistic articles and in his family life. He’s got a strained relationship with his father (Chris Cooper), who left Lloyd’s now deceased mother when he was a boy. When Lloyd attends his sister’s third wedding, the toxic father/son dynamic is on full display. The last thing the writer wants is a puff piece assignment and he believes he’s got one with a profile of the iconic Rogers.
Lloyd flies to Pittsburgh where the public access program is taped and thus begins a dialogue with Rogers that will far exceed his 400 word assignment. Esquire wants a short piece dealing with heroes while Lloyd wants to dig deeper. When Mister Rogers sees his profiler suffering, he chooses to dig deeper as well.
Inspired by a true story, there’s still a feeling that Lloyd’s daddy issues are far from new territory. Rhys’s performance is adequate, but a bit diminished next to an icon playing an icon. Those looking for an examination of the life of Rogers may come away disappointed. Luckily the solid documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? covers that ground. We do see the puppets, the sweater change, and most importantly, the warmth that the host effortlessly exuded. The script deserves some credit for not falling too far down a sentimental rabbit hole. In this story, Mister Rogers isn’t perfect, but he’s darn close.
That goes for Hanks. Sometimes the obvious casting decision is the correct one and here’s an example. We attribute some of the same qualities with the two-time Oscar winner. This is why sarcastic Twitter posts about Hanks being a nightmare in real life are met with immediate eye rolls or chuckles. Mister Rogers was a comfort to millions and watching Hanks play him feels the same.
*** (out of four)