Directed by Marielle Heller and written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood stars Tom Hanks and Matthew Rhys. Lloyd Vogle (Rhys) writes for Esquire magazine. Though he's an award-winning magazine journalist, it seems that his rough reputation has put in him in a bind. No celebrity wants to be interviewed by him. With a limited pool of participants, he's assigned to write a puff piece for the only person who's still willing to talk to him: the iconic Fred Rogers (Hanks), creator of the children's TV series, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.
Who is Fred Rogers? It depends on whom you ask. Fred Rogers might be either the mere host of a hokey children's show or a living saint. Either way, it's not a question that Lloyd is being paid to answer very deeply. But his journalistic instincts pick up on the fact that there's more to Mister Rogers than meets the eye. Lloyd, amidst dealing with his own troubled family life, tries to dig into Rogers' private emotional realm. He brings to light a few fascinating topics as a result: how Rogers feels about shouldering the immense burden of being America's father and listening to peoples' troubles. Unfortunately, the story doesn't dig into where the audience's interest lies-in Mister Rogers' life. Instead, attention is steered towards Lloyd's.
But what's so interesting about Lloyd? There is indeed potential in the character. He is, as he says of himself, a broken person. In fact, early in the film he gives a speech, saying that writing is a way to "change a broken world with […] words." The movie itself reaches towards this theme of restoring the broken. Undoubtedly, a movie about Mister Rogers-free to roam in the realm of fiction-has enormous promise and opportunity to evoke heartfelt tenderness by communicating Mister Rogers' sentiment-that all people should be loved and accepted exactly as they were.
It's disappointing that this theme-along with the theme exploring the relationship between anger and forgiveness-isn't quite developed to its full potential. While audiences can see that there is something broken about Lloyd and his family, the story doesn't quite tug at the heart strings due to its lack of depth. It doesn't help that the narrative splits its time and attention between Mister Rogers and Lloyd. The story reaches to convey that the truth about Mister Rogers lies somewhere in between his public embodiment of agape love and his private struggles. It also tries to explore Lloyd's relationship with his family. But neither character is explored in enough detail for audiences to develop an attachment to one or the other.
That lack of dramatic impact lies partly in the acting too. There is something missing in Rhys' performance. Yes, there are a few convincing moments, such as the scene in Rogers' apartment in New York City. There, he reveals a sense of unexpected vulnerability that was brought about by Rogers' nonjudgmental questions and uncanny ability to connect to his troubled inner child. But the anger he conveys lacks the pain and anguish, nuances that would've shown audiences a great depth of brokenness. Because of this missed opportunity, Hanks' performance as the kind, gentle soul is flattened a touch. One is left to contemplate what would've happened if Rhys instead had given audiences the impression that his character had a deep spiritual need to connect with Rogers.
The movie has a few aspects to appreciate. For one, it makes creative use of the format of Rogers' show to weave together the narrative. It's also punctuated with shots of the model neighborhood, featuring a vintage charm. And a dream sequence set in The Neighborhood of Make-Believe is quite a treat to watch. But ultimately, the movie is unremarkable due to its underdeveloped themes and characters. Fans of drama films may be disappointed. And those who love Mister Rogers are better off watching the documentary, Won't You Be My Neighbor?.