Marielle Heller directs “A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood,” but it’s not the movie I wanted, nor is it the movie most admirers of Mr. Rogers would want either. A film that boasts one of the most beloved actors of our generation, Tom Hanks, portraying one of the most influential figures of our youth, Fred Rogers, falls very short of offering anything entertaining much less insightful.
The problem with Heller’s film is we learn next to nothing about Rogers and we learn way too much about the depressive state of a fictional “Esquire” journalist named Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys). He’s a pretty unlikable guy with daddy issues (Chris Cooper). The most eye opening thing about Lloyd is when he gets into a fistfight at his sister’s wedding with Dad. Beyond that, he’s a repetitive close up of sunken eyes and five o’clock shadow. I couldn’t even tell you if Lloyd is actually a good journalist, or a good husband or a good father.
The script by Micah Fitzerman-Blue & Noah Harpster is misguided in its subject matter of Lloyd’s struggles at the forefront of course, but also in delivery. I felt like I was watching Tom Hanks, not Fred Rogers. Hanks really doesn’t hide in the role very well. I only heard Hanks’ voice which is not pleasant for singing and lacks the comforting whisper the real Rogers had. I solidified my opinion when I saw a clip of the real Fred Rogers in the closing credits.
A scene midway through the film has Fred inviting Lloyd into his New York apartment. He tries to console Lloyd and get him to be comfortable with his feelings by use of his famous puppets Daniel The Tiger and King Friday VIII. It’s an absolute failure of a moment between the two leads of the film. What’s meant to be therapeutic and consoling comes off as creepy. Call me cynical, but this Fred Rogers is not a guy I would want to be left alone with. I know that wasn’t the intent, but that’s what was processed. A comparable scene occurs between Matt Damon and Robin Williams in “Good Will Hunting” (“It’s not your fault!”). You’ll quickly see the difference in effective acting and sensitive direction.
An uplifting moment occurs when they ride the subway together. A few kids recognize Rogers and soon the whole car (construction workers and police officers included) is singing his theme song in harmony. No, I don’t believe this ever occurred, but this is often why we go to movies; to see those opportunities that raise our spirits and help us escape. There are not enough moments like this in “A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood.”
The screenplay always teeters on better story potential that never arrives. When we first meet Fred at his studio, he is interacting with a child banging a toy sword while his producer is once again frustrated with his delay in filming. Here are two angles I would have rather seen; how Fred interacts with his impatient producer and how he manages to converse with children. Yet, we don’t go any further than that. We have to be bogged down with Lloyd.
Another moment has Fred sharing with Lloyd better ways to let out your anger like slamming on the percussive notes on a piano. The final moment of the film shows Fred at the piano, alone, tickling the ivories, and then he too slams down on the keys. Fred is angry, and as he tells us repeatedly during the film, “that’s okay,” except now I’m angry. I’m angry because I want to know what Fred’s angry about.
Couldn’t a film that prominently features the human side of Fred Rogers privilege me to the Fred Rogers beyond his studio of make believe?