“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is designed to sneak up on you. In the hands of a lesser storyteller, the saga of a bitter reporter who learns to appreciate life after forging a friendship with Fred Rogers would resort to cheap, maudlin devices. With iconic everyman Tom Hanks as the smiling children’s television host, the formula writes itself, and most people will probably assume they know every beat of the movie sight unseen.
Director Marielle Heller, however, excels at pulling heartstrings from sturdy foundations, injecting smart and insightful details into material that could easily default to sentimentality. While her first big studio effort lacks the edginess of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” and “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” Heller works backward by digging into the gooey material and mining for substance in surprising places.
Nearly two decades after his death, Rogers remains the great enigma of modern American media, an unassailable object of good intentions whose influence spanned generations. Rogers’ gentle tone and genuine curiosity may have entranced his young viewership, but it puzzled them as they matured, and spawned many investigations over the years. How can anyone harbor such good will without at least a few skeletons in the closet? Twenty years before Morgan Neville’s essential documentary portrait “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” Esquire reporter Tom Junod chased that mystery and wound up questioning his own life choices instead.
In a steady, nuanced turn, “The Americans” star Matthew Rhys plays a fictionalized Junod named Lloyd Vogel, a man on the verge of several crises at once. A new father and acclaimed magazine reporter, his muckraking ways have made the magazine reticent to send him on any new assignments, and few high-profile targets want to risk talking to him anyway. Meanwhile, his wife (Susan Kelechi Watson) has started to lose patience with Lloyd’s simmering neuroses, including his lingering resentment for his deadbeat dad (Chris Cooper, in an appropriately pathetic turn). When the old man turns up at the wedding party for Lloyd’s sister, the son can’t help relitigate his father’s decision to abandon their mother on her death bed, and their showdown ends in blows.
So far, so routine. But there’s a sly magician overseeing the first act. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” begins within the confines of an imaginary “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” episode (replete with period-specific broadcast standards), as Hanks steps into the studio singing the show’s legendary theme song and introduces Lloyd’s story. Throughout the movie, makeshift exterior shots look like miniatures lifted straight from the show. The script, by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, applies Rogers’ genial mode of address to present a prototypical case study of anger management. It’s not the most sophisticated device, but it positions Rogers above the drama with an ethereal glow that matches his otherworldly reputation, and lingers in his appeal.
When Lloyd’s editor tasks him with a Rogers puff piece, the hard-hitting journalist naturally rolls his eyes. “Beautiful Day” joins a host of movies on journalism with dramatic office showdowns (“450 words by tomorrow! Now get out of my office!”), but once the movie gets beyond the initial setup, it settles into a more intriguing rhythm. Rogers shows a peculiar interest in Lloyd, welcoming him to the Pennsylvania studio for an intimate one-on-one where the baffled reporter finds himself drawn into Rogers’ persistent positivity.
Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes’ roving camera explores the layered studio environment, where the bright lights of the fantastical sets obscure the shadowy corners where Lloyd glimpses Rogers’ intimate process. Standing on the sidelines, he’s mesmerized as Rogers voices the sweet falsetto of Daniel Tiger, convinced there must be more beneath the surface. But Rogers’ inviting smile never wavers, and he seems just as keen on interrogating Lloyd about his problems as Lloyd is to find them in his subject.
Lloyd’s stern drive to unearth the backstory behind Rogers’ outward placidity takes on a schematic quality, as if his frantic research process were script with a trailer in mind. But these scenes mostly set the stage for the pair’s ensuing relationship. Lloyd digs through the Rogers archives (Hanks revisits his Forrest Gump playbook by cropping up in old interviews with everyone from Arsenio Hall to Oprah) in search of new lines of inquiry. Instead, he just gets closer to witnessing the consistency of Rogers’ worldview.
Lloyd’s nagging problems with his wife and father follow a traditional arc, and sometimes border on melodramatic, but his conversations with Rogers deepen the material with each new encounter. Even as Rogers hints at his family hardships, the odd chapter of his career where he left the show, and admits to some family estrangement of his own, he excels at deflecting questions about these subjects in favor of universalizing his problems. At their best, these encounters echo James Ponsoldt’s “The End of the Tour,” a similarly chatty look at the reporter tasked with investigating the life of David Foster Wallace. Both movies explore the intellectual process of mapping out a view of the world through conversation. “Beautiful Day” just does it in more adorable terms that obscure its deeper intentions.
Hanks’ cuddly pedigree means he was born to play Rogers, and he immerses himself in the role of the happy-go-lucky charmer who takes a photo of everyone he meets and embraces his appeal alongside his fans, even singing his theme song along with them on a New York subway. (This saccharine moment may feel contrived, but Junod does include it in his story.) “Beautiful Day” relies a bit too much on Rogers’ built-in appeal, but it exhibits a real confidence about the rationale for staying within those bounds. And for all the schmaltziness, the movie has plenty of compelling reminders about the talent behind the camera; it’s less of a tribute to Rogers’ cheery ethos than a subtle exploration of his lasting appeal.
Heller does take a few ambitious swings, and they always come as a welcome surprise. The dream sequence set in the land of make-believe veers into Spike Jonze-esque surrealism as it finds a fresh take on Rogers’ cardboard sets (although those familiar with the sinister take on this material with Jim Carrey’s Showtime series “Kidding” may feel like they’ve seen it all before). The strongest moment fuses Hanks’ commanding screen presence with a daring narrative twist.
Borrowing a moment from Rogers’ lifetime achievement award speech at the 1997 Emmys, the movie finds him asking Lloyd to join him for a moment of silence “to remember all the people who loved you into being,” and Heller transforms the inherent cheesiness into a magical fourth-wall-breaking spell. As with “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” the story invites a cynical reading and then kills it with kindness. “He loves people like you,” Rogers’ humorless agent tells Lloyd — meaning dark souls who deserve to look on the bright side of life, and maybe most viewers, too.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” doesn’t reinvent the Rogers mythos, and even its innovative devices fall short of rescuing the material from some of the more obvious revelations. Fortunately, it’s not devoid of payoff. The wondrous closing scene, a wordless moment with Rogers after the production wraps up for the day, arrives as a final poetic gesture. It’s a reminder that this sweet, unassuming movie has deeper sensibilities lurking beneath its surface, just like Rogers himself.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. Sony Pictures releases it November 22, 2019.