I was not one of those people who grew up with memories of watching Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Yet, I knew who he was and I knew he was very popular. It was not until I was much older that I realized the man was not just a popular host of a children’s show but a true hero.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood may be honestly mistaken as a biography of Fred Rogers, especially if you’ve only watched the trailers. But it’s more about how one man, by being kind, by listening and drawing out the pain from others can make a difference in our everyday lives. Yes that person is Fred Rogers, but the real main character of this film is Lloyd Vogel as played by Matthew Rhys.
There is some creative fiction in the story that this film tells and it comes together within the structure of what seems like an extended episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood begins with Tom Hanks portraying Mr.Rogers in his iconic opening to the show and showing a picture of his “friend” Lloyd who is troubled . He asks if we would like to meet him and thus begins our story.
Lloyd is a damaged man with deep issues that have never been resolved, specifically issues with his father with whom he had been estranged from for many years. When we first meet Lloyd, he is at his sister’s wedding where he gets into an altercation with his father and ends up with a black eye. Lloyd is a writer for Esquire magazine, mostly known for his investigative articles. When he is assigned an interview with Fred Rogers profiling American heroes, he is disdainful of it and thinks it beneath him. All his editor wants is a 400 word profile of the beloved children’s television host. Lloyd is a cynical writer unconvinced that Rogers is the genuine article. But in trying to get to the real story behind Mr. rogers, it turns out that Mr. Rogers uncovers Lloyd’s real story.
Rather than being a straightforward biopic of Mr. Rogers, we end up with more of an example of the effect a person like Mr. Rogers can have on someone and others around him. In a way, it also plays like an episode of Highway to Heaven where an angel helps a common person who is under personal pain come to address that pain and deal with it. In the case of Lloyd, it is primarily focused around unresolved anger towards his father. Now if it were anybody but Fred Rogers or an Angel, his weaving himself into Lloyd’s life would be creepy but this case it is a form of healing.
Lloyd’s story is not all that unique or that different than many other back stories of millions of men in America. And I believe that is what makes this movie so relatable. It is a common story that speaks for common people. The magic of Fred Rogers as it is shown in scenes he has with children is his gift of not being judgmental or talking down to them. As Lloyd tries to get at Rogers’ real story he discovers that there is no Mr. Rogers screen persona and that what he sees on screen is a genuine caring man.
Matthew Rhys does a very good job as Lloyd Vogel. This is a role that could easily been performed as an unlikeable character but under the direction of Marielle Heller, he becomes a sentimental figure that loves his newborn son and has a loving relationship with his wife. And as he begins to realize he doesn’t want to ever become estranged with his family like he has with his father, we see it too.
But of course, it is Tom Hanks that will draw the most attention from everyone. Let’s be honest about Tom’s performance. He does not look or sound like Fred Rogers, but he captures his mannerisms and way of speaking perfectly. He is still Tom Hanks under that sweater. That is not a bad thing as Tom Hanks is known as one of the warmest and nicest guys in Hollywood. There is genuine heart in the way Hanks portrays the iconic children’s host and brings humble sincerity to a role that requires a sincere approach.
Chris Cooper plays Jerry, Lloyd’s father who a first comes across as that embarrassing relative that probably drinks too much and says the wrong thing at the wrong time. But Jerry is also a character that needs to heal as much as Lloyd. And Cooper, like Rhys, takes a role that could easily have been made into a jerk and gives a sentimental nuanced glimps of a genuine human being trying to make things right.
Even though this film is “based on a true story,” we know that it is code that some dramatic liberties are going to be taken. That is certainly true for the subject of Lloyd as much of his background relationship is fictionalized from the real story of the Esquire writer. Much what you see of Fred Rogers story is more true to history, however. Some of it has been re-arranged for the purposes of film, tough. The film as mentioned before is framed like a two-hour episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and it even uses models similar to those used on the show’s set to illustrate transition scenes and cityscapes. Yes, it is as charming and nostalgic as it sounds. These filmmaking choices give it a near fantasy storybook fee to it. That fantasy world certainly comes across in a funny dream sequence where Lloyd finds himself on the set of miniature Mr. Rogers with the other puppets like King Friday XIII and Daniel Striped TIger.
The structure of the main story and the framing of the the narrative as a piece of journalism which is itself framed as an episode of Mr. Rogers’ is unique. But the back story of Lloyd Vogel’s story about his relationship with his father is not unique in itself. And that simple narrative is also what makes this movie so effective. Lloyd is just like many men in life who have grown cynical with the world and has issues from their past that have never been resolved. He’s just like you, he’s just like me. By incorporating Mr. Rogers as a supporting character this becomes more than a story of a guy with daddy issues, it becomes a story of how human kindness and the willingness to forgive can cause a ripple effect around you like a pebble dropped into a pond. And in a way that is a lesson that Fred Rogers has always been trying to teach us, understanding, compassion, and that you too were once a child.
Final Score: 9/10
Update: The original Esquire article can be found here.