As we get older, it’s beginning to dawn on me that there’s an entire generation that has grown up without knowing who Fred Rogers is or what Mister Roger’s Neighborhood was. It stands to reason that as we as a society produce more and more media, it’s only a matter or time until all of the new media completely supplants the old media, but losing the impact of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood would be a travesty. For crying out loud, he’s the man who saved funding for public broadcasting.
So it’s not a surprise that in order to keep his message alive, we’ve gotten a few standout movies related to the man. Last year Won’t You Be My Neighbor? released to thunderous praise and was a perfect encapsulation of Fred Rogers and the legacy of kindness and respect that still endures today. Now we have A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which tells a fictionalized version of how journalist Tom Junod did a profile on Fred Rogers for Esquire back in the 90’s.
What kills me is that I want to like A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. I really, honest to God, do. But every time I start to really dig into the story, the movie drags me back out against my will.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Director: Marielle Heller
Release Date:: November 22, 2019
With Matthew Rhys standing in for Tom Junod and Tom Hanks filling the role of Mister Rogers himself, the story is at first a pretty straightforward look into how Junod, who’s name was changed to Lloyd Vogel, is interviewing Rogers for a piece on heroes. As the movie continues, we learn more about Lloyd’s past and how he has a very strained relationship with his father (Chris Cooper). After a point, these interview sessions become less about understanding Rogers but letting Lloyd understand his own feelings.
Much like Rogers himself, A Beautiful Day is a movie that preaches understanding and compassion for others. Every couple of minutes Hanks will deliver some classic words of wisdom from Rogers that still rings true to this day. It’s amazing that even as adult, being told that it’s okay to feel sad or mad is perfectly natural and there’s no such thing as a perfect person. Most importantly, the movie reinforces the idea that we, as humans, are capable of love and compassion and should use those emotions as much as possible.
These are all wonderful messages to convey to an audience, regardless of how old or young they are, but for as lovely as they may be, the overall package just isn’t as interesting as it could be. Most of the weight of the movie falls on Rhys’ shoulders, with Hanks feeling more like a supporting character at times than a core cast member. Hanks will enter without a word of warning, be his wonderful, charming self, then as quickly as he appeared he disappears. Hanks does a fantastic job and in a perfect world should get some awards season buzz for his performance here.
But the focus on Rogers feels more and more like an afterthought as the movie progresses, with Lloyd’s personal problems taking the reigns of the movie for most of the second half. It’s not terrible by any stretch of the word, but it takes focus away from Hanks and the words of wisdom of Mister Rogers. In a movie about Mister Rogers, we spend more of our time focusing on Lloyd’s daddy issues than we do seeing him construct his piece on Rogers.
I’m torn on this. The lessons from Rogers are used to help Lloyd overcome his differences with his father, but most of the movie lacks that joy and wholesomeness that Won’t You Be My Neighbor? conveyed so effortlessly. There are neat little references here and there, like how all of the transitions are done via toy planes and cars driving around like they were a part of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood of Make-Believe, or how during a scene where Mister Rogers asks Lloyd to think of a person that is proud of him he slowly turns his gaze towards the audience, like his famous 1997 Emmy speech. It’s all there, but the package is brought down a few notches for how unlikable Lloyd can be at times.
From the very beginning, he’s not a pleasant man to be around and that doesn’t change for most of the film. He starts off incredulous and mean-spirited and while he does come to terms with his feelings and develops an genuine friendship with Rogers, he’s still smarmy about it. In the first five minutes he gets punched in the face for being an asshole and by the end of the movie I still felt like I wanted to punch him in the face, only not as much. Rhys did a fine enough job with the role, but the script pushed way too hard to show the differences between Rogers was the wise and lovable mentor to Rhys’ rough and bitter cynic.
But the thing I’m most critical about towards this movie has nothing to do with any of the actors or the writing, but the feeling that it left me with. When I left the theater after seeing Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, it made me want to be a better person. It made me rethink my life decisions and actively improve myself A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood unfortunately did not leave me with a feeling as strong as that, or any major feeling at all for that matter. It left me with just a simple “that was nice.” Nothing more, nothing less.
Despite my criticisms towards the film, I do believe that it has a message worth sharing. I said it last year and I’ll say it again, but we can do with being more positive and kind towards others, especially as we’re getting closer to the holiday season. Mister Rogers changed the face of children’s television. His legacy is strong and deserves to be shared for future generations. However, if you had to choose between Won’t You be My Neighbor? and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood for your Fred Rogers fix, stick with Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. You’ll feel more from it and learn about a wonderful rather than see the impact that he had on a surly journalist.