By Allan Lopez
It’s difficult to imagine a public figure as pure and impactful as Mr. Rogers. He’s carried comparisons to both saints and Christ himself, and as wild as that may seem, both labels seem apt for a man as kind and comforting as he was. For almost 40 years, while other shows made use of thoughtless humor and loud action to grab the attention of children, Rogers instead used songs and puppets to gift messages of acceptance and love to all the impressionable kids who watched him. He ended up beloved by those who spent their childhood with him, making it inevitable that those very children would grow up and wish to see more of him in the media of their adulthood. So, it is disheartening to see that when the opportunity came together to finally give him his moment on the big screen in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” those behind the camera opted to have him share his spotlight with an unpleasant main character and flashy sequences that have no place in a simple character drama.
It should be said upfront that “A Beautiful Day” is not a complete miss. There are aspects of the film that deserve appreciation, with one of the most obvious being the acting. Yes, Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers is as perfect as everyone thought it would be. If anything, Hanks is one of the select few who can be held in the same light as Rogers, which makes his performance so much more natural. He wears the classic sweater and glasses, but any physical resemblance becomes second to the similarity in presence that Hanks is able to convey with every scene he’s in. The light smiles and pensive furrows work to bring across the warmth that Rogers was known for. And it isn’t only Hanks who does great work with his character. Matthew Rhys as fictitious reporter Lloyd Vogel does an admirable job portraying the brokenness of a man who is sent to profile Rogers, and in the process, ends up growing closer to him as he realizes the mess he has made of his own life. Chris Cooper plays Vogel’s less-than-stellar father with a fantastic ability to evoke empathy for someone who doesn’t deserve it. The work of all those in front of the camera prove to be a testament to the thought put into telling this specific story.
But outside of the excellence in acting and technical aspects such as cinematography and score (both of which are remarkably beautiful and greatly add to the atmosphere of the film), the film does contain a very large problem: it has to spend so much time with the character of Lloyd Vogel. Though the audience’s satisfaction in a film like this comes from seeing Lloyd grow from a flawed mess to a man who has learned to live a life closer to Rogers’, Lloyd is simply an unbearable character for a large majority of the film. All throughout, the only thing that seems to drive Lloyd is anger, which bleeds into every interaction he has. His disdain for his father has him constantly doubting whether Rogers is as good as he seems and his stubborn belief that he knows what is right has him alienating his wife and their newborn child multiple times. No reason is given to care for Lloyd and invest in his emotional journey towards forgiving his father and letting go of the hate that ended up harming his new family. At best, the audience goes along with watching his story unfurl simply because Mr. Rogers makes it his mission to fix what he sees broken within him. There is no connection to be made with a man as prickly and ugly as Lloyd is. The one positive trait the film is able to cement early on is that Lloyd is amazing at what he does, showing him receive an award for his magazine journalism, but even that fact can only do so much to ensure that Lloyd’s journey is worth watching.
Sadly, Lloyd’s personality is not the only part of the film that sticks out. In what may possibly be an attempt to liven up the film and balance out the negative presence Lloyd brings, there are some awkward, abstract sequences dispersed throughout. The film opens in the same fashion as a typical episode of Mr. Rogers’ show. He comes through the front door, sings his theme song, changes from his work clothes to something more comfortable, and then starts speaking to the audience, starting towards his lesson of the day. All is fine until he opens up a miniature door on the wall next to him and reveals to the audience a close-up of Lloyd’s swollen, distraught face, a frame from later on in the film that feels out of place with the tone and aesthetic of the scene. Later on in the film, Lloyd experiences what seems to be an abstract, psychedelic dream sequence as a result of a lack of sleep, but the scene feels so out of place with everything else the film is trying to be. There is a definite effort to imbue some personality into the film with scenes like these and transition shots of handcrafted props instead of normal B-roll, but these small acts do little to bring an air of joy to the film and can leave segments of it muddled in tone.
All in all, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is a film that had the potential to bring Mr. Rogers back into the zeitgeist in an appropriate way, but lost its way with a miserable main character and unnecessary flourishes. While Hanks and the rest of the cast do all they can to realize the script they were given, there just existed foundational problems with it. The film in no way damages the reputation of the beloved icon, but does not live up to the expectations one would have for a Mr. Rogers movie.
Contact Allan Lopez at allan300 ‘at’ stanford.edu.