The first thing you need to know is that Tom Hanks does an eerily accurate impersonation of legendary children’s TV host Fred Rogers in Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Clad in the iconic red sweater, hair gray and swept back, demeanor calm and composed, even in the face of a rude question or two, Hanks does a remarkable job of capturing at least the public face of the performer, educator, and minister: a man who taught love and empathy to millions of young minds and hearts every afternoon for decades via public broadcasting.
The second thing you need to know about the film itself is that Mr. Rogers is not the center of the story, but rather a supporting player. That means that while Hanks is quite good, we never have enough time or narrative real estate to delve into his personality, his back story, or the journey that made him the seemingly saintly, comforting, and peaceful human being we saw on TV.
That leads us to the third thing about A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: it’s mainly about journalist Lloyd Vogel, played by the charmless Matthew Rhys. Vogel (loosely based on real-life journalist Tom Junod) is a whiny, self-pitying, self-absorbed asshole. He is grudgingly dealing with first world problems in the most obnoxious way possible as he sulks and is gradually eased out of his cynicism and unhappiness by his encounters with Mr. Rogers while profiling the latter for Esquire magazine.
Like so many white male protagonists in films these days, Vogel has issues with daddy (Chris Cooper, in an uncharacteristically overbearing performance) but ends up working through them with the help of his new friend and the support of Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson). She’s his wife and mother of their newborn child, and she puts up with her husband’s crap way more than she should.
Heller’s last two films–2015’s excellent The Diary of a Teenage Girl and last year’s brilliant Can You Ever Forgive Me?–were sharply observed, unsparing, and unsentimental character studies of women at opposite ends of their lives going through profound personal changes (she adapted the script of the former herself from Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel). Although Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster’s screenplay for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood made the 2013 Black List of best unproduced scripts, it’s hard to see why: the story never settles on whether the focus should be the enigmatic Fred Rogers or the profoundly uninteresting Lloyd, and as a result, Heller never seems sure either.
The maudlin and cliché script aside, the biggest flaw in the film is the casting of Rhys in the central role. The Welsh actor is best known as one of the leads on the acclaimed TV series The Americans, but whatever he might bring to that and his other work (of which I’ve only seen his supporting turn as Daniel Ellsberg in Steven Spielberg’s The Post, also with Hanks), remains missing here. Perhaps it’s the character as written or perhaps his own shortcomings, but Rhys’ Vogel is one of the most unlikable and irritating performances in a major motion picture this year, ironically smothering any empathy you might feel for Vogel in a movie that is supposedly all about discovering some.
That leaves Hanks, whose own work in the movie might be more lauded if we hadn’t just seen Morgan Neville’s genuinely moving, insightful documentary about Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Hanks truly does work hard to embody the spiritual, non-judgmental, all-loving presence of Mr. Rogers, making us want to spend more time getting to know him, but he remains tantalizingly out of reach as he deflects Vogel’s more probing questions in some of the film’s few intriguing segments.
Overall, however, Hanks’ performance, Heller’s recreations of the production of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and her clever use of the same kind of miniatures seen on the show as a visual metaphor for the travels of her own characters are the best part of a movie bogged down by an otherwise tedious narrative and an annoying main character. For a much better exploration of Mr. Rogers himself, stay out of this Neighborhood and stick with the documentary.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is out in theaters Friday, Nov. 22.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye