A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a tougher sell than it may appear on paper. The film is based on true events, but not actually a biopic of the revered children’s show host Fred Rogers, better known as Mister Rogers (Tom Hanks). Rather, the focus lies on writer Lloyd Vogel (the real-life writer is named Tom Junod) in the year 1998 as he prepares to profile Mister Rogers for a piece in Esquire Magazine. But not only is Vogel (Matthew Rhys) not a fan of Rogers, but his current toxic relationship with his father puts him in ill-fitted condition to cover a major celebrity.
At this point, even without knowledge of the real-life events, it’s clear to see where this is all headed. Vogel, the disgruntled narcissist he is, must be persuaded to change his line of thinking by the kind-hearted Mister Rogers. Early on, Vogel finds Rogers’ persona to be totally unbelievable. He even asks Rogers during one interview if he considers his ‘character’ to be an icon, with Rogers almost scoffing at the insinuation that his TV persona is just an act.
Vogel, the product of a broken family, can’t understand Rogers’ earnestness or kind heart. We learn early on about his mother’s tragic passing, as well as his father’s battle with alcohol. He even ends up in a fight with his father at his sister’s wedding. Despite the failings of his father, the film has outstanding success at depicting Vogel as a douche. He just has a Debbie Downer, Buzz Killington, I ruin your joke, I’m never happy, I hate puppies vibe about him. Even his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) finds him to be totally unreasonable in his dealings with his family as well as the snobbiness he displays towards Mister Rogers. It also helps that Matthew Rhys looks like David Duchovny’s skeevier brother.
Vogel stubbornly attends a taping of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to learn more about his enigmatic subject. He briefly meets the show’s producer, Marge (Carmen Cusack), who somehow is even more annoyed by Rogers’ relentless sincerity than Vogel is. But Vogel soon sees a different side to Fred Rogers, the man behind many of the puppets on the show. One moment during the taping displays just how seriously Rogers takes his craft; it isn’t just a persona, it’s the real him.
What is clever about the film, directed by Marielle Heller, is how it’s structure borrows heavily from the actual Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The film begins as if we’re seeing the intro to a random episode in the series. The establishing shots are not of any actual cities, but feature miniature sets mimicking the style of the show.
Heller clearly reveres Rogers, and wants us to as well. Her commitment to maintain the nostalgic image of Rogers is even exemplified when we see Hanks imposed into archive, film-grainy footage. Rogers, while with Vogel on the subway, is serenaded by passengers with his own theme song (not buying that a bunch of inner city kids led a non-ironic sing-along of a children’s theme, but I digress). What’s more, Hanks’ performance isn’t exactly an imitation of the famed TV star, but still delivers an aura of decency and trust. Hanks speaks slowly, softly, with purpose and thought just like the man he’s intended to portray, and we feel the familiarity.
This is not technically a holiday film, but it has similar goals to many holiday films. By pitting Vogel as the Scrooge/Grinch in opposition to Mister Rogers’ philosophy of forgiveness and restraint, the film achieves something familiar but sweet. The film is scrapping by in the midst of a crowded winter box office, but perhaps the movie’s eventual fate as a cult favorite is apropos. For all his fame, Mister Rogers’ humility is at home being under-seen and underappreciated, but ultimately illuminating to those who seek it out.