Full disclosure, I’m possibly the last person who would appreciate a biopic about Fred Rogers. First of all, biopics are too regular these days, and if you’ve read my previous post, I’m not particularly fond of them. Secondly, growing up in the UK, I was never as exposed to Mr Rogers as others. Thus, I was surprised by how much I liked A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, as it’s the antithesis of everything I feared. It deconstructs the biopic form in an ingenious way, and also frames Rogers from a distance, humanising while still exploring him, rather than resting on the assertion that nostalgia for the man would do all the heavy lifting.
See, the film in essence isn’t a biopic of Mr Rogers at all. The title may be an allusion to his television show and Tom Hanks may be plastered on all the posters, but the story is about Matthew Rhys’ Journalist Lloyd Vogel as he writes a profile on the beloved TV host. It’s an ingenious misdirect, and credit should go to writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, who forgo the hero worship that would come from a direct Rogers biopic, and create a distance by employing him in a supporting role. He’s explored, and indeed given a compelling arc (the final scene of the film is a heartbreaking moment of intimacy with Rogers himself), but the script allows the audience to both worship and question the character, as it isn’t his eyes through which we see the world of this film. It’ll please both the die hard fans and the sceptics, as the ambiguity of the character is open to interpretation. Unlike something along the lines of Judy which lionises the central figure by revolving the plot around her, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood allows its celebrity subject to be on the edge of the narrative, anchoring the core themes whilst not being truly about him.
This is because Rogers himself is so elusive and particular. In the abstract, some of his mannerisms are a little eerie and even creepy, and he himself is mostly guarded on his private and emotional life (ironic considering he is fuelled by others’ need for expressing emotion). Thus, exploring him centrally could make for a threadbare drama. Luckily, Tom Hanks is able to capture that ambiguity whilst also making Rogers wholly personable, lovable and most importantly, human. Something about the way that Hanks narrows his eyes is extremely expressive in this film. There’s a warmth to his Fred Rogers, something shared by the man himself, and there’s a reason Hanks is getting such awards attention. It’s a little meta the way that in recent years, he has gained a reputation as the nicest actor in Hollywood, and Rogers was seen to be the friendliest man in existence (by this movies account he was unbelievably wholesome). When you look at it like that it seems inevitable that this performance should come about.
Mathew Rhys arguably drew the short straw in order to accommodate Hanks’ star turn. While he’s certainly good as Vogel (as is the rest of the supporting cast), the role is a little more standard and thus less rewarding. If I were to be a harsh I’d say that he was the basic jaded man with daddy issues. That may paint it in a lesser light than necessary but the scenes that Rhys shares with Hanks are leagues better than ones shared with his wife (Susan Kelechi Watson) or his father (Chris Cooper). It’s clear that the core premise is a vehicle for introducing Vogel to Rogers, and allowing their relationship to form, but if I had an improvement, it would be to make the domestic scenes more dynamic.
That’s a criticism of writing purely, as Director Marielle Heller does an excellent job at imbuing the film with a distinct visual style, that elevates the story above what could easily have been a TV movie. Transitions are framed like Mr Rogers’ episodes, and the film is interspersed and bookended with moments within the television show. In a particularly captivating scene, Vogel’s reality intertwines with Rogers’ show, creating an admittedly trippy sequence that verges on the fantastical.
In all, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood lives and dies on its depiction of Rogers, and besides Hanks’ outstanding performance, the film manages to subvert standard biopic tropes by distancing itself from its subject and placing him in a supporting role. By using him as a vehicle to explore themes of acceptance, forgiveness and grief, Heller’s film almost treats us as the audience of Mr Rogers’ neighbourhood, and allows him to teach us as the real man did so well while he lived.
8.5/10: Despite its core plot being somewhat formulaic, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood cleverly intertwines Fred Rogers into it, creating a touching tribute to an American hero, whilst humanising him by not succumbing to the typical hero worship narrative.