A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is most like an episode of Columbo, but rather than the hero being a terrific detective, he’s just terrifically kind. You can imagine a series of films like this one. In them Mr. Rogers would interact with a person going through an emotionally trying time and help her or him process those emotions in a healthy way. It would be like a prime time Mr. Rogers Neighborhood “movie of the week” on network television.
Like an episode of Columbo, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’s story isn’t really about Mr. Rogers. It’s about a reporter assigned to profile him in a late-90s issue of Esquire devoted to heroes. The reporter, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys, distraught, puppyish), is a new dad, and own his long-estranged father reappears in his life as well, so he has a lot of issues to work out, or rather, avoid by focusing on his work. His work this time involves regular conversations with Mr. Rogers though, so emotions will be addressed.
Plot aside, Mr. Rogers is the main event here. Tom Hanks embodies the man well. He’s got the soft speech and mannered movements down. It isn’t eerie though. This is not Jim Carrey in Man on the Moon, Meryl Streep in Julie and Julia, or Will Smith in Ali. Tom Hanks is doing an impression not an impersonation.
There’s a touch of the “magical child” in the way Fred Rogers is characterized in this film, but the overall intent is to communicate that which is most difficult to believe about Mr. Rogers – that he was genuine, that he was real, that what we saw is what he really was, that his kindness wasn’t an act. This “Mr. Rogers” is the Mr. Rogers you know with only the slightest bit more detail added in. For example, we meet his wife, hear a little about his kids, and he talks directly about his faith, all things that were not part of his television show. (If you want a more in-depth look at the real Fred Rogers, you should watch Morgan Neville’s terrific documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?.)
Mr. Rogers is always a little unbelievable though, isn’t he? Like, no one really goes about their lives like that, right? In one scene in this movie, it’s the third or fourth time Vogel and Mr. Rogers have spoken to each other as part of their ongoing interview for Vogel’s Esquire profile, and Mr. Rogers won’t answer Lloyd Vogel’s questions. He talks around answers and continually turns the conversation back to Lloyd’s issues with his own father. It’s maddening, and I can’t decide how I feel about it.
On the one hand, Mr. Rogers is trying to help Lloyd. On the other, Lloyd didn’t ask for help. He’s just trying to do his job, and Mr. Rogers won’t cooperate. Mr. Rogers is under no obligation to give Lloyd anything, except he kind of is, because he agreed to do the interview. He’s not being hostile, but he’s almost being passive aggressive, except that he’s being neither passive nor aggressive. He’s just wholly uninterested in himself. He’s genuinely interested in Lloyd instead with zero agenda. That’s such an unusual dynamic. It’s hard to accept. In a way, that’s the conundrum of the film itself. How is this possible? Can you imagine?
An air of “make believe” hovers over all of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Director Marielle Heller includes a number of fantastic elements in the narrative, some of them borrowed from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and some of them invented for this film. It’s a weird movie in moments. But we kind of need a little “make believe” to make room for us to imagine a kindness bigger than that which we most often experience. Heller has previously made movies about thoroughly unlikeable people and dared audiences to sympathize with them. Here, she dares us in a different way. She dares us to believe kindness of this sort is possible. And if we can believe in its existence, maybe we can practice it ourselves.