by Alan Yudman
The story told in A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBOORHOOD certainly belies the title. It is a series of dark and stormy days that bring us to the point Lloyd Vogel’s life. Let’s just get this out of the way, this is not a film about Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks). This is about Lloyd (Matthew Rhys) an award-winning writer at Esquire magazine. He specializes in investigative journalism, uncovering those who are using their position to take unfair advantage. It fits Lloyd’s personality. He trusts no one. I’m not even sure he trusts his wife. Lloyd has been scarred by an absent father who left his family when his wife became terminally ill. That relationship peaks at Lloyd’s sister’s wedding. He and his father (Chris Cooper) get into a fight that leaves Lloyd with bruises on the outside to match those on his soul.
While he is dealing with all this Lloyd gets a new assignment from his editor… profile children’s television legend Fred Rogers for an issue the magazine is doing about heroes. Lloyd objects, but relents and travels to Pittsburgh to meet Mr. Rogers. It is a trip that will change Lloyd’s life and force him to really look at his relationships.
As I write this it’s been nearly a week since I saw this movie and I still don’t know what to make of it. It has received a lot of praise from critics. So, I ask myself if I am missing something. Because this seemed more style over substance. Lloyd’s journey from tormented soul to caring husband and father are unique in one way. It is motivated by one of the most beloved people in the world. But isn’t that what Mr. Rogers did for millions of children… motivate them to be better, more caring human beings? I suppose Fred Rogers doing this for an adult is something different. But the fact that Lloyd couldn’t see what a terrible person he was being until an outside person reveals it to him is an idea filmmakers have returned to over and over.
There are a few things that make this worth seeing. Above all else it is Rhys and Hanks. They play off each other marvelously. Rhys is constantly frustrated by Hanks relentless goodness. Hanks tones down his inherent people pleasing to show us the Mr. Rogers we all remember… a sly, good hearted person who didn’t preach but gave us tools to find the right path. The other actors are truly supporting in that they help fill in the characters of Lloyd and Fred. Marielle Heller’s direction is excellent. She copies the familiar Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood tool by using “manufactured” sets to locate the audience in places like New York and Pittsburgh. Sounds trite, but it works well. Also, the use of songs from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood is effective in helping frame Lloyd’s state of mind.
In one scene that is also in the trailer, Lloyd’s wife (Susan Kelechi Watson) beseeches Lloyd not to ruin her childhood by exposing Mr. Rogers as some type of monster. I don’t think that is possible. The cynic in me finds it hard to believe that anyone could be as good as Fred Rogers. I suppose I’ve been proven wrong, but maybe that doubt is coloring my opinion of A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD. I encourage you to see it and convince me it is better than I think. Hope you accept my challenge.