When one of the more memorable moments of Marielle Heller’s touching A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is an all-out fistfight at a wedding, followed later by a whack-a-doo dream sequence involving a grown man shrunk to puppet size and cavorting with Daniel Striped Tiger and King Friday XIII, you know this isn’t the biopic of Mr. Rogers you were expecting. Indeed, it’s not a biopic at all and is instead a deftly drafted, ultimately heartwarming tale that is more about Mr. Rogers’ philosophies than the man himself. The fact that Hanks will surely be nominated in the Supporting Actor category as Rogers is your next clue.
Though the television icon—whose PBS show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is responsible for helping rear millions of children in the latter half of the 20th century (and beyond)—does anchor the film, Beautiful Day primarily follows the day-to-day life of Esquire magazine’s Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys). Based loosely on real-life reporter Tom Junod and his assignment to write a profile of Rogers in 1998, the film gently and summarily demonstrates the influence the man had by boiling it down to his ability to make one singular man a better person.
Vogel, who we learn early on is the recipient of a National Magazine Award, has garnered a reputation for being obnoxious and selfish, so much so that his own wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) is worried that he will ruin her childhood by publishing what no doubt will be a harsh portrait of Rogers. The fact that Vogel’s attendance at his sister’s wedding ended with a brawl with his estranged father Jerry (Chris Cooper) didn’t help his case any.
Even when he finally meets up with Rogers for the first time, Vogel declares through a cynical sneer that there’s no way anyone can be that nice and that it must all be a well-orchestrated act. Eventually Vogel begins to thaw, however, discovering what most of us have known for decades—that Mr. Rogers is the real deal.
There’s no doubt that Hanks’ understated performance does Rogers justice, but it takes a good long while (and for some, it won’t happen at all) to suspend disbelief and accept that we’re watching Rogers on screen and not just the guy from Forrest Gump dressed in a cardigan and bowtie singing “It’s Such a Good Feeling”. Thankfully, Hanks not only nails Rogers’ measured cadence but also brilliantly brings the man back to life as a whole. It was Rogers’ calm and deliberate demeanor, after all, that helped make his show such an influential element of the zeitgeist, not his haircut or his toothy grin.
Beautiful Day may come as a surprise to those hoping for a slightly fictional re-telling of last year’s award-winning documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, but the surprise if ultimately a completely pleasant one… a (yes, beautiful) reminder of the good ol’ days when a purely kind man tossed his daily loafers aside, donned a pair of blue sneakers, and changed the world.