You would think that a film titled, It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, with a poster that has a smiling Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers would be about the one and only Fred Rogers. You’d think that, but you’d be wrong.
It’s actually about a troubled journalist named Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) who has been given an assignment to profile the legendary PBS children’s host of Mister Rogers Neighborhood.
Vogel is a new father who has his own set of daddy issues: Jerry (Chris Cooper), who left the family when he and his sister were young and their mother was ill. He’s also just worked the last nerve of his editor at Esquire (Christine Lahti) who, in order to get him back in good graces, sends him off to write a quick and cute little piece on Mr. Rogers. So, he reluctantly heads to Pittsburgh where, over time, the two bond and eventually become friends. But let’s be real, how could you not be friends with the nicest man in the world?
The film is fine and entertaining, and director Marielle Heller (along with writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster) and Hanks manage to make Fred Rogers into a living breathing human and not some godlike caricature. It does take a moment to get fully realize Hanks as the be-sweatered host, but once you get used to the cadence and Rogers-like mannerisms, you believe. Rhys is also great. You actually feel for him and what he’s been through and it’s not just some funny screenwriting trope of the tortured writer. It also helps that Chris Cooper is playing his dad. His character has a complete arc to where he’s not the jackass the audience is introduced to in the beginning. And Susan Kelechi Watson as Vogel’s wife is wonderful as well. Her role is more of a partner then the usual put-upon wife.
With all that though, we don’t get what we actually wanted, which is a movie about Mr. Rogers. As far as we know, he didn’t have a dark side and was never mean or nasty to anyone, which very well could be why they writers came up with this story angle. But don’t you think people would want to know how a mild-mannered guy named Fred became The Mr. Rogers? At one point in the movie, they mentioned that he actually stopped the show but came back a few years later. What happened during that time? He also famously testified before Congress when that body of massive intelligence wanted to cut funding for PBS. After his speech, they voted in favor of funding the network.
There seems to be plenty of stories out there that might have made a better film about his life. But, this is the only one we get, then Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers is a mighty fine way to prolong his legacy.