Last year, the critically-acclaimed documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” explored the life and legacy of the legendary television personality Mister Fred Rogers. Now, Tom Hanks is tackling Mister Rogers in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” a narrative-based feature inspired by the real-life friendship between Rogers and journalist Tom Junod.
Ever since photos first surfaced of Hanks donning Rogers’ signature red cardigan on set, the Oscar buzz has been building. It’s a shame the film as a whole couldn’t have been as impressive as Hanks’ performance, though.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is nothing short of magical when he’s onscreen as the ever-charming Mister Rogers, but unfortunately, that isn’t all that often. When Hanks isn’t at the center, the film struggles to gather enough momentum to truly feel compelling.
When journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is assigned to profile Mister Rogers, he sees it as a slap in the face. Instead of his typical hard-hitting pieces for Esquire Magazine, Vogel is tasked with writing a puff piece on someone he believes to be a fraud. Lloyd approaches his interviews with Mister Rogers with cynicism, looking for a break in the always positive facade, but it’s to no avail – Rogers really is as kindhearted as he looks on television.
But as Lloyd attempts to crack Mister Rogers, he ends up being the one to crack. Lloyd is a broken man, and the pressure of a newborn child, a strained marriage, and the longstanding grudge against his estranged father are enough to push Lloyd into opening up and subsequently being aided by Rogers.
Quite a bit of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” caught me off guard. For one, the overarching premise of the film wasn’t what I had anticipated. It’s clear the story was going to revolve around Rhys’s Lloyd, but it seemed as if he would be hand in hand with Hanks for a majority of the film in a back-and-forth dynamic. Instead, the film primarily focuses on Lloyd and his own struggles – with Hanks and Rogers featured for maybe a third of the film altogether.
By the end of the film, it was clear this was not a story about Mister Rogers, but that he was simply a vessel to tell Lloyd’s story.
Additionally, the stylization of the film was not what I was expecting. It seemed as if this would be a somewhat straightforward biopic that followed a fairly traditional format, but that was not the case.
Essentially, the entire movie is set up to feel like one big episode of Rogers’ show, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” From the soundstage to the segments straight out of the series, it’s as if the movie is taking place inside an episode. In some instances this added to the charm, like utilizing toy cars and planes for travel transitions, but other times it felt unnatural, like a fourth wall break in which Hanks directly addresses the viewers. Honestly, the stylization just felt inconsistent. Director Marielle Heller chose to play to it when it was convenient, but other times it was thrown entirely out the window.
The biggest problem facing “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” comes when Hanks is offscreen. During his limited time, he’s absolutely magnetic, but without him, things tend to drag. Rhys delivers an emotional performance as the broken and confused Lloyd, but his story isn’t nearly as compelling as his acting.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” struggles to determine what kind of film it wants to be, particularly without Rogers onscreen. When Hanks isn’t captivating audiences, the film quickly loses its luster and turns into a run of the mill drama, albeit a sufficiently enjoyable one.
Star Rating: 3 out of 5
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.