Film & Television

In Marielle Heller’s ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” Tom Hanks Fills a Familiar Cardigan

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is being promoted as “the Mr. Rogers movie,” but in truth it’s the story of a jaded reporter, Lloyd Vogel, based on real-life journalist Tom Junod. Lloyd (Matthew Rhys) is assigned by his Esquire editor (Christine Lahti) to do a 400-word “puff piece” on the popular TV host. Vogel is known for his harsher brand of journalism; he seems to specialize in exposing the unsavory underside of his subjects. In fact, one reason he’s been assigned the Fred Rogers piece is that no one else will agree to be interviewed by him.

“Please don’t ruin my childhood,” his own wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson from This Is Us) begs him. He goes off to Pittsburgh with his briefcase, a chip on his shoulder, and a black eye and swollen nose from the fistfight he had with his father (Chris Cooper) at his sister’s wedding.

If anyone can help this lost soul, it’s Mr. Rogers.

Much to Vogel’s surprise, Fred Rogers has no secret demons or hidden vices. What you see is what you get. But interviewing the man proves an exercise in frustration. Rogers is quick to turn the tables — far more interested in asking Vogel questions than in answering any about himself. At one point, when Rogers senses that Vogel is having difficulty opening up, he pulls out one of his puppets (shy Daniel Tiger) and encourages the reporter to talk to him instead. It’s a powerful scene to watch — on the one hand, as a somewhat “normal” adult, you can relate to Vogel’s growing irritation (and to the near-constant exasperation of Rogers’s television crew, who in an earlier scene have had to wait 90 minutes while Rogers finally connects with a petulant disabled child visiting the set). On the other hand, you know you are watching an exalted being behaving in a purely compassionate way. It’s a bit shaming, to be honest. To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, “You’re a better man than I am, Fred Rogers.”

Vogel, at one point, refers to Rogers as a saint. But he’s quickly corrected. Joanne Rogers (renowned stage actress Maryann Plunkett) explains that Rogers works hard; he swims, he reads scripture, and he prays every night for everyone he has met, which soon includes the entire Vogel family. He objects to being referred to as a saint because he sees what he does as something attainable for all.

Heller’s film leaves us wanting more of Rogers’s private life. (For that, we really have to turn to last year’s documentary.) Instead, we see his effect — whether that’s inspiring an entire New York subway car to break into his theme song (a true story) or helping one tortured individual find peace.

The framework of the movie is presented in a risky but ultimately rewarding way. The entire film is in a sense a single episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Working with camera equipment identical to that used for the series itself, Heller has the movie open with Hanks coming home, singing, and changing out of a suit jacket and loafers into his ubiquitous cardigan and sneakers. In Rogers’s direct and measured way, Hanks uses a picture board to introduce us to his new friend Lloyd Vogel. Lloyd, he explains, is having a hard time forgiving someone who hurt him. By the end of the movie, when Hanks sings the show’s familiar closing tune and hangs his cardigan back up, he can report that his friend Lloyd is happier now.

In between, the fairly sober movie is often interrupted with interstitial sequences that might have come from a Mister Rogers’ episode. When Lloyd flies to Pittsburgh, a model plane touches down near the show’s familiar miniature set. A model New York City is depicted in the same way. It’s a convention that feels corny at first, but soon feels as though it fits perfectly.

And that’s the whole secret to Mr. Rogers, isn’t it? At first, he and his show seem childish, simplistic, and hokey as hell. But, soon you realize just how sincere it is and how deep and truly profound his subject matter is. Talented Heller (who is getting the attention she deserves with this, her third film) provides a very special movie experience that puts things in perspective in a world that doesn’t make a lot of sense right now.

As Mr. Rogers once said, and as we need more people — especially those in positions of power — to believe, “There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.”


Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.