TV’s Mister Rogers helps a jaded journalist replace his anger and pain with forgiveness and love in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” and what a mawkish disaster a movie with such a story could have been. But director Marielle Heller doesn’t let that happen. Her big-studio movie is filled with delectable humor and genuine feeling.
Written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster and inspired by an Esquire article by Tom Junod, the 1998-set dramedy follows a fictional version of Junod — Esquire reporter Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) — and his growing friendship with Fred Rogers, the TV personality who, for 30-plus years, helped children feel understood.
Lloyd, who lives in New York with his wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), and their infant son, has anger issues, which involve his father, Jerry (Chris Cooper). Jerry deserted Lloyd’s mother when she was dying. Father and son throw punches in one scene.
Assigned to write a short piece on Fred Rogers, Lloyd initially views his subject as that “hokey kids’ show” host. But when interviewing Fred at the Pittsburgh studio where Fred tapes his “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” programs, Lloyd realizes, as Fred, therapist-like, gets him to examine his own decisions and demons, that Fred is “a lot more complex” than he seems.
Fred steers Lloyd into his “neighborhood” and helps him reconnect with his childhood self. Affected by Fred’s pure-heartedness. Lloyd begins to forgive, and starts healing.
The plot, in which a cynical adult becomes happier and more fulfilled after meaningfully connecting with a child (or an adult with a childlike spirit) is hardly new.
The final scenes, in which Heller, having so far avoided goo, lets things get maudlin, are disappointing.
But mostly, Heller, whose credits include the worthy (and edgier) “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” puts irresistible humanity and gracefully keen humor on the screen, and she keeps the emotion real.
Scenes in which Lloyd tries to determine what to make of the eccentric Fred Rogers, are immensely funny. Particularly so is the sight of Fred, immersed in the character of Daniel Tiger, the puppet he’s high-pitchedly voicing.
The look of the film, which includes urban landscapes constructed of toys, is another nice touch.
While Rhys portrays Lloyd compellingly, the movie belongs to Hanks. Avoiding excess imitation, he brings Fred Rogers, his friendly smile and soothing voice included, to life convincingly, whether he’s putting on his cardigan or singing his TV theme song, or, in a stellar passage, bungling the folding of a tent.
Hanks’ subtle and multifaceted performance also conveys Fred Rogers’ curiosity about people and suggests sly, stubborn, and dark qualities in the TV icon some view as saintly.
Fred Rogers and the journalist Tom Junod remained friends until Rogers’ death, in 2003.
Those who have seen “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” Morgan Neville’s fine documentary about Fred Rogers, will also be impressed by “Beautiful Day.”
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Starring: Matthew Rhys, Tom Hanks, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper
Written by: Noah Harpster, Micah Fitzerman-Blue
Directed by: Marielle Heller
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes