Walking into A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD without any foreknowledge, it’s easy to assume it will be the Netflix FYRE to WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR’s Hulu’s FYRE FRAUD. That is not what this movie is.
What seemingly starts off as a biopic about Fred Rogers turns into a biopic of a fictionalized Tom Junod. Junod is the writer for Esquire on whom the character Lloyd Vogel, played by Matthew Rhys, is based. Surprise! Mister Rogers and the Land of Make Believe are merely the framing device for a story about a man with a fraught family history. That’s it, that’s the show.
As a framing device, however, it’s terribly effective. Establishing shots are made using scale models of Pittsburgh and New York based on the one in the opening credits of MISTER ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD. In a delightful homage by Tom Hanks, he as Mister Rogers goes through the usual opening song of his show. Each beat of the movie is preceded by a familiar sequence out of an episode of MISTER ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD. This device starts with him sharing a picture of a man he calls his friend, Lloyd Vogel. When this happens, it’s your first hint to ask, “Wait, who’s this guy?”
After engaging in fisticuffs with their estranged father at his sister’s wedding, Vogel is handed an assignment to write a 400 word puff piece on Mister Rogers. (Yes, that sequence of events is important.) When he flies to Pittsburgh to meet Mister Rogers on set, Mister Rogers dodges his questions and instead asks Vogel about himself. Mister Rogers asks about the injuries from the fight, there’s a moment where you actually see “Do I lie to Mister Rogers?” go across Vogel’s face.
The meat of the movie is Vogel grappling with concepts like forgiveness, fatherhood, kindness, and simply what it means to be a good person. These are set against the backdrop of meeting with Rogers in the same time period as figuring out what to do about his father trying to reestablish ties. Rhys gives a moving and believable performance as a man presented with these wildly divergent extremes. For much of the movie, he is in a visible state of cynical disbelief and frustration.
And how is Hanks as Mister Rogers? As with all Hanks performances, it’s clearly done with love and respect for the legacy of the man he’s portraying. His cadence when speaking is very exaggerated, almost to the point of parody. Probably because we’re viewing him through Vogel’s eyes, everything he does and says has the air of a mystic, an oracle conferring wisdom to all. To me, it landed somewhere between Forrest Gump and Uncle Iroh. Whether viewers see that as a feature or a bug is not for me to say.
In the spirit of MISTER ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD, the musical choices are excellent. Hanks’ singing and piano skills are in full display, showcasing the breadth of music Fred Rogers composed with Joe Costa. The soundtrack, curated by Nate Heller, is atmospheric and beautifully accompanies each scene.
I never thought I’d apply the sentence, “a psychedelic fever dream” to something related to Fred Rogers, but that’s the best way to describe the emotional climax of the film. Like the high powered lady executive in a Hallmark Christmas movie, Vogel is faced with a crisis of morality that pits familial responsibilities against work commitments. Except, in this case, the subject of the work is the moral compass who guided several generations. Even by “going to work,” Vogel ends up spending more time grappling with what is “right.”
There is no easy way to praise or critique this movie. By its very premise, it will provide nostalgia and catharsis, regardless of what actually transpires. Anyone who’s lost a parent, lived for their work, had difficult relationships, will find something in it to hold on to. The magical realism elements did the story a disservice, only in that it gave the air of a movie much more fantastical than this was. But then, who doesn’t want to return to the Land of Make Believe?