‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,’ indeed

Despite having aired its final episode nearly 20 years ago, there’s something about “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and its titular, real-life protagonist that seems particularly relevant today. Just last year, Oscar-winning documentarian Morgan Neville explored Fred Rogers’ life and legacy in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” a poignant film that implored its audience to try a little kindness — the world needs it now more than ever. It was a very special film that could melt the heart of anyone who watched it. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

In the wake of all that praise, it might seem like there’s nowhere left to go with the story of Mister Rogers; the quintessential movie has already been made. And to some extent, that’s true. But “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is a film full of surprises, and while it’s by no means a movie I needed, it’s one I will happily take.

First of all, Tom Hanks — what did we do to deserve him? They say 50% of great acting is great casting, and Hanks is so perfect for this role I feel like I needn’t waste time saying why. All you need to hear is “Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers” and it practically writes itself! While the obviousness of Hanks as Rogers might undermine his inevitable Oscar campaign, it only enhances the film in front of us. I mean, he’s got it all: the look, the voice, the grandfatherly mannerisms. Most of all, he has the soul; just like the real Mr. Rogers, Hanks can give you goosebumps with so much as a stare.

But something you should know about “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is that it isn’t really about Mr. Rogers at all. On the contrary, it’s about Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a cynical journalist tasked with profiling the legendary children’s television host. At first glance, Lloyd seems like a fully-functioning member of society: he’s got a wife (Susan Kelechi Watson), a newborn and a fulfilling career at which he excels. But peel back his layers and you’ll find a scared little boy, still grappling with daddy issues (shoutout Chris Cooper) and the weight of adulthood. Enter Mr. Rogers. In classic biopic fashion, Lloyd heads to Pittsburgh to learn about Fred, but by the time he leaves, he’ll have learned much more about himself.

I can practically hear the groans. I get it, I get it, it’s a story you’ve seen before. But what makes “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” so charming is its presentation. As it so happens, Mr. Rogers has plenty of tricks up his cardigan.

That’s because the film is presented as if it were an actual episode of the show: it begins with Tom Hanks singing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” closes with “It’s Such a Good Feeling” and is punctuated throughout by “Mister Rogers” staples like Mr. McFeely and the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. It even uses elaborate miniatures in lieu of establishing shots, just like the show’s iconic red trolley.

In lesser hands, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” might easily have settled for schmaltzy Oscar fluff. But director Marielle Heller (“The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” “Can You Ever Forgive Me”) is far too clever. She has fashioned a film both original in its execution and bursting with heart. Just in time for Christmas, she’s made cinematic comfort food. 7/10

This review was originally published on December 5, 2019 in The Observer, the daily newspaper of the University of Notre Dame. You can read it here.

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