TIFF 2019 Review: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood transforms Tom Hanks into Mister Rogers.
In 2018, Morgan Neville’s incredible documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? premiered at Sundance and became one of my favorite films of the year. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? took me back to my childhood and made me fall in love with Fred Rogers all over again. I praised the film, calling it one of the best documentaries of all time. More than a year and a half later, I stand by that statement.
Months after Won’t You Be My Neighbor? became the highest-grossing documentary film of 2018, news broke that Tom Hanks had signed on to play Mister Rogers in a new movie directed by Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?). Fans went nuts over this news, agreeing Tom Hanks being cast as the beloved television icon was the definition of perfect casting. Even I immediately saw A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood as my most anticipated film for 2019.
Despite what you may think, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not a biopic about Fred Rogers. Instead, the film is centered on cynical journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), who writes profile articles for Esquire Magazine. Lloyd isn’t very popular with readers or his subjects due to his mean-spirited articles. While Lloyd is a talented writer, his constant negativity impacts his work and leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. In what seems like a final attempt to help Lloyd keep his job, his editor assigns him to do a profile article on heroes with Fred Rogers as the main subject.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood opens like an episode of Mister Rogers Neighborhood, where Tom Hanks transforms into Fred Rogers, as he sings “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” while changing his sweater and shoes. This nostalgia-filled opening, presented entirely in the 4:3 format, immediately confirms no actor other than Hanks could have pulled off this performance. Fred continues to talk directly into the camera, just like on the television show, where he introduces the audience to Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) through his famous picture board.
This is when the film switches over to widescreen as the audience is introduced to Lloyd and his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson). We begin to learn about Lloyd’s past, including his troubled childhood, and the resentment he holds towards his alcoholic father. At this point, the audience sees how Lloyd is the polar opposite of Fred. Where Fred is positive, hopeful, and kind, Lloyd is smug, bitter, and angry. It is through his various interactions and friendship with Fred that Lloyd becomes inspired to confront his past and deal with his resentment towards his father.
It goes without saying that Hanks’ performance is the reason to see this film. He was born to play this role, and I have no doubts he will be nominated for Best Supporting Actor multiple times throughout the upcoming award season. Hanks transforms and perfectly captures all of Fred Rogers mannerisms and quirks without missing a beat. As someone who grew up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood regularly, I appreciated all the little details Hanks brought to this performance, which must have come from a tremendous amount of research.
While not a direct biopic focused on Fred Rogers, Hanks and Heller wanted to make sure they stayed true to his legacy. There are quite a few people who have wondered if Mister Rogers was just “an act” and Hanks and Heller explore that in the film. In one scene, Lloyd asks Fred’s wife if he ever gets angry. She proceeds to tell him he does, but he looks for creative ways to express his anger, such as playing the piano.
Heller must have been a big fan of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, as she managed to recreate several key moments from the show’s history for this film. There are certain scenes, such as the opening that even the most casual fan would know, but others are a bit of a deeper dive for those like myself, who grew up watching the show regularly. I loved all of the creative ways Heller used things like the trolley train to transition the story back and forth from the television show to reality.
Speaking of the trolley, Heller and the creative team paid so much attention to detail when recreating of the sets from the original series. Mister Rogers’ living room and Land of Make-Believe sets looked like they were the original sets from the 70s. Even the puppets from the Land of Make-Believe looked spot-on.
In terms of what kept me from truly loving the film, it boils down to the portrayal of Lloyd, who is based on real-life journalist Tom Junod. While I understand his character serves as the inspiration for this movie, Rhys’ performance is too one-dimensional, keeping him pretty much the same from beginning to end. He is so unlikeable that as the viewer, I found him incredibly hard to relate to. There are a few moments like a scene in a Chinese restaurant where Fred asks Lloyd to take a minute to sit with him in silence. At this moment, I truly felt Lloyd was going to change his attitude, but it doesn’t happen. In fact, as soon as the scene ends, Lloyd goes back to being the same bitter and angry man he’s been for the past 90 minutes.
This lack of character growth combined Rhys’ one-note performance rubbed me the wrong way. I wasn’t expecting Lloyd to become the next Fred Rogers by the end of the film, but I did want to feel some sort of connection to the character. I realize as a viewer, I am supposed to feel compassion and sorrow for Lloyd because of his troubled past, but I didn’t. I understand Fred connected with those who were broken, but unlike the children who he connected with, Lloyd never has a moment of clarity where he decides to change and grow. Maybe this is how the real character Lloyd is based on acted, but without having that moment of self-realization, I didn’t feel the deep emotional connection I hoped to have.
While I would have preferred to see a true Fred Rogers biopic starring Tom Hanks, I am grateful that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood exists. Marielle Heller has made a special film that will hopefully create a whole new generation of Mister Rogers fandom. Tom Hanks is phenomenal, and Heller’s has outdone herself with her most ambitious outing to date. For whatever flaws the film may have, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood will remind the world how positivity should always overcome cynicism, even in the worst of times.
Scott ‘Movie Man’ Menzel’s rating for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a 7 out of 10.