For the September 2018 issue of Johnstown Magazine, I reviewed Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a documentary about the life and influence of Fred Rogers. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is another Mr. Rogers movie, this time a major studio release starring Tom Hanks as the man himself.
It’s easy to draw comparisons between the two works, but they are essentially different art forms, telling the same story. I think they’re both worth watching, especially if you’re a fan of Rogers and his history in Pennsylvania television.
The new movie is a rough adaptation of an 1998 Esquire article, “Can You Say ... Hero,” written about Rogers by journalist Tom Junod. Junod’s own life story is altered a bit to work him as the movie’s protagonist, now named Lloyd Vogel.
Watching the film for the first time, you might be surprised to realize that the movie is more about Vogel than it is Rogers, and it gives the former far more screen time. This works thematically, as it looks into the life of the real Rogers from another person’s perspective.
The storytellers use this to frame the film in a really unique way. While we only experience Rogers through the eyes of another person, we’re also experiencing Vogel’s life as narrated by Rogers, in the form of an episode of his famous show.
Rogers opens little cubbies that reveal pictures of “my friend, Lloyd,” and tells us his story with puppets as though Vogel were the subject of today’s lesson. This two-way looking glass approach to the story engaged me. It was a strange – and honestly exciting – way to approach to the biopic formula.
The story-within-a-story ends up getting stranger still and a bit surreal as the movie moves along, while still holding up the movie’s themes and narrative.
I would complain, however, that though it makes sense to tell Vogel’s story more than Rogers’ – I still wanted more Rogers. He gets more screen time in the film’s second half, but by then at least one issue with the film had cemented.
The protagonist, Vogel, played by Matthew Rhys, is unlikable. He’s crass and abrasive and unrelatable – some of that is in the screenplay, and some of that is in how Rhys portrayed the character. It’s okay to have a protagonist that isn’t likable, especially when that character’s journey is to overcome those flaws, but in this case, he isn’t likable or enjoyable to watch.
Meanwhile, the few early scenes we get with Hanks as Rogers remind you of the captivating performance that the movie is holding back from showing.
If you imagined the perfect film about Fred Rogers’ life, what conflict would you choose? Rogers helped so many grow so much in their humanity – what big turning point did he have to learn something significant and grow as a person? I’m sure there were many, but perhaps he never had such a fatal flaw that a story of overcoming it would be interesting. For this reason, it makes sense that they went with another character as the protagonist. I even like the story they told; I was just a bit bored by the first half of them telling it. That being said, I cried at one point.
The second half of the movie picks up and delivers on the emotional storytelling Fred Rogers deserves.
Because I’ve already said I was disappointed at not seeing more of Hanks’ performance, you must have already guessed what I thought of it: it was delightful.
You can feel how much Hanks actually loves the man he’s portraying in the care he puts into all Roger’s mannerisms, and the hope and love he carries in Rogers’ eyes. There isn’t much more to say – he gave a great performance.
Fred Rogers in this movie is a lot like Godzilla in the 2014 Godzilla movie: awesome when he’s on screen. I wanted more. Hanks’ warm-and-fuzzy-inside performance combined with the unique, surreal storytelling make A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood an enjoyable, heartwarming story about the life of an American hero, Fred Rogers.
I give it a B+
(I’m glad I watched it. Almost as glad as I am that I found a way to compare Fred Rogers to Godzilla. It’s important to keep these reviews entertaining.)