It’s never a shock when someone says they are an ardent fan of Tom Hanks. I grew up watching the likes of Big, Forrest Gump, Cast Away and The Green Mile, so Hanks practically feels like an extended family member at this point. I was a fan of his casting as the iconic Fred Rogers, but there was a part of me that felt it might be hard to see past the fact that it would be such a recognizable actor portraying such a revered figure – especially fresh off the heels of 2018’s powerful documentary that extensively covered Rogers’ career, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
In the opening scene of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, any worries of believability quickly washed away as Hanks takes the screen reenacting the traditional opening of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood with the sung words, “It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood.” Hanks’ soft tone and gentle mannerisms, along with Marielle Heller’s careful directing, quickly make you feel at home as you take a step back in time to your childhood.
To be clear, this story isn’t about Mister Rogers. Instead, it’s about a journalist named Lloyd Vogel, portrayed by Matthew Rhys. Despite Vogel having a seemingly good relationship with his wife (played by the wonderful Susan Kelechi Watson) and newborn son, he’s not necessarily a ‘people person’ and has strained relationships with the rest of his family, primarily his father (Chris Cooper). A work assignment requires Vogel to craft a short puff piece on Mister Rogers, but the investigative reporter can’t help but dig deeper in order to find out if Fred Rogers is truly as passionate as the television host he portrays. The story, written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, is based on the real-life meeting between journalist Tom Junod and Rogers, a meeting that Junod has said changed his perspective on life for the positive. Junod’s experience with Rogers was published in an Esquire profile titled Can You Say…Hero?
Heller uses the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood television program as a framing device for the film, with Rogers occasionally playing the role of narrator and transitions including hand-crafted models of New York and residential settings as a nice homage to the classic trolley and neighborhood models seen in the iconic show opening. While the model transitions were very effective, I found the narration was a bit jarring at times and disrupted the story.
Rhys delivers a solid performance, but many viewers might find themselves waiting in anticipation of the next scene where we get to see Hanks brighten the story as Fred Rogers. Hanks is expertly able to recreate the comfort and magic of Rogers, with a seemingly effortless performance. You can understand Vogel’s fascination with Rogers, due to the saintly radiance Hanks is able to depict. Hanks is likely on the path to a supporting actor nomination for the upcoming 92nd Academy Awards, an honor he deserves in a crowded Oscar season.
Hanks’ captivating performance only barely rescues the sections of the film he isn’t a part of, as the movie starts to drag until he takes the screen again. Heller has proven herself to be an extremely respectable and capable director between this and 2018’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? An important moment in the film requires Heller to take a risk and rely on the silence of the characters and the theater for an impactful moment (a moment where a viewer seated behind me had her phone ring and she texted a response without an ounce of subtlety). While this moment was ruined for me, I hope that others will have a better experience that stays with them.
Overall Rating: 6/10
-Drew Munhausen, Nerdtropolis Movie Critic