The opening scene of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Marielle Heller’s not-quite-biopic of the beloved children’s television titan Fred Rogers, establishes a relationship between screen and audience that’s at first comforting, then unsettling. A door opens on a living-room set that will be familiar to anyone who either was or had a child between 1968 and 2001, the years Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood aired on public television around the country, and in walks Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks), clad in the jacket and dress shoes of the outside grown-up world. As he changes into his red cardigan and navy blue tennies, he greets us in his usual gentle, unhurried manner, saying it’s wonderful to be with us and that he has lots of things he’d like to share today. Then, just as we’re relaxing into the movie we think we’re in—a warmly nostalgic tribute to a revered cultural figure, played by an all but equally esteemed actor—Mr. Rogers opens one of the windows on the cutout paper house beside him to reveal the face of a handsome, youngish man with a dazed expression and a bloody cut next to one eye. “I’d like you to meet my friend Lloyd,” he says.
Given that Fred Rogers diligently went over all his show’s scripts to ensure there was nothing that would needlessly traumatize or confuse children (even as he was discussing such topics as death, divorce, and political assassination), it’s safe to say that the introduction of such a photograph would never have taken place on an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. With the sudden entry of Lloyd and his scary facial contusions into the safe space of Mr. Rogers’ house, the audience’s relationship to what’s unfolding on the screen abruptly changes. A minute ago we were stand-ins for children watching the show; now we seem to be somehow inside the brain of Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a cynical Esquire reporter tasked with profiling Rogers for a roundup of inspiring portraits. That sense of dislocation persists throughout the movie: Was the whole introductory scene, like a series of surrealistic interludes to come, merely a figment of Lloyd’s imagination?
A Beautiful Day is based on a 1998 Esquire article by reporter Tom Junod, whose name has been changed and his backstory substantially rewritten for the movie. The “real” Lloyd never punched out his estranged father (Chris Cooper) at his sister’s wedding and got punched right back, thus accounting for the bloody, blank-eyed face in the photograph. Nor did Junod have a wife with a newborn son at a time when he was too work-obsessed to give them the time and attention they needed. But Junod had his own long-suppressed family traumas and internal resistances to change, and the journalist has said that Lloyd’s on-screen friendship with Fred Rogers substantially mirrors the one Junod and Rogers shared over the last five years of the latter’s life.
The fascinating but frustrating Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, then, is no standard biopic but a very narrowly cast reimagining of one specific relationship late in the life of a noted person. It’s debatable whether Fred Rogers even is this movie’s subject, since the character of Lloyd Vogel gets significantly more screen time. More importantly, it’s Lloyd whose subjectivity is laid bare to us in scenes like that opening pop-up in the cutout house, or a later moment when he shrinks down to the size of the hand puppets who populate Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Hanks’ embodiment of Rogers—no doubt the reason many viewers will be curious to see this movie—is astonishing in its depth and richness, but the character still remains an enigma that we never come close to solving. A well-developed storyline follows Lloyd, his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), their infant son, and Lloyd’s extended family; meanwhile, we rarely see Fred and his wife Joanne (Maryann Plunkett) together, and then never without Lloyd in the room with them. A fan of Mr. Rogers—or of the excellent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which broke box-office records in 2018—might be forgiven for wishing for a little more Fred and less Lloyd.
And yet Heller’s third film after two nearly perfect early outings, the acerbic high-school comedy Diary of a Teenage Girl and the rueful true-crime drama Can You Ever Forgive Me?, comes by its ungainliness honestly. Indeed, what appears to interest the filmmaker about the story is the initial awkwardness of the match between journalist and subject, the jaded, anxious Lloyd and the devoutly Christian, preternaturally patient Fred. Lloyd’s reputation as a journalist (established in a few overly hasty and formulaic scenes with his editor, played by Christine Lahti) is as an unmasker of phonies, a finder of the dark recesses behind every apparently sunny story. But as he discovers after a few days of tailing the famous broadcaster on set and on the road, Mr. Rogers really is just what Mr. Rogers appears to be, whether he’s unintentionally making every customer in earshot weep at a Chinese restaurant, doing his daily laps in a swimming pool, or riding a New York City subway where a pack of kids, eventually joined by the adults in the car, serenade him with the theme from his own show.
It isn’t that Fred Rogers has no unexplored dark places. In a scene where he shows Lloyd the hand puppets that are the show’s longtime props, the imperious King Friday the 13th and Fred’s shy alter ego Daniel Tiger, Fred’s inability to stop deflecting questions by responding in the voices of the puppets hints at some deeply defended core of his personality. And when listing healthy ways to deal with anger and aggression, he suggests pounding all the low notes on a piano at once, then demonstrates the resulting cacophony with an un–Mr. Rogers–like joy in sheer noise. But whether because of the script (by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster) or because of Heller’s and Hanks’ discretion in choosing how much to show us, the character of Fred (or “Rog,” as his wife calls him) remains stubbornly opaque. We see plenty of the side of him that is an intuitive teacher, a trained Presbyterian minister, and an impromptu therapist to an extended network of friends, fans, and just-encountered strangers. But seldom do we glimpse the husband, the father (Rogers’ two sons never appear as characters), or the private man.
The movie’s last third, in which Lloyd and his aging father begin to reestablish a relationship through the ministrations of the ever-engaged Mr. Rogers, occasionally sags under the weight of affective excess. The secondary characters supporting Rhys and Cooper in these scenes, especially Watson as Lloyd’s loving but fed-up wife, at times seem like script contrivances placed there to give our protagonist something to struggle against, someone to disappoint and then seek forgiveness from. The best-written relationship in the movie by far remains the one between Mr. Rogers and Lloyd, who perceive early on that despite their temperamental differences, each has something to offer the other. And the ever-present potential for bathos in a movie about accessing one’s own inner child is offset by a dedication to visual whimsy and playfulness that can recall Michel Gondry. Recurring establishing shots of Pittsburgh and New York City, the two cities where most of the action takes place, are created from toy-like miniatures complete with tiny moving cars, referencing the opening credits of the PBS series.
These anti-realist touches, paired with the naturalistic performances of the two leads, place us in a peculiar narrative world not that far removed from the bifurcated universe of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, where a miniature trolley would transport viewers from the live-action world of the living room to the make-believe realm of talking puppets. That tension—between reality and fantasy, the importance of honesty and the necessity for escape—finds expression in the movie’s mysterious last shot, a rare moment of solitude for Hanks’ Fred Rogers as he lingers on the soundstage after yet another taping of his reliably comforting show. For a few seconds Fred does something unexpected, a gesture performed for the benefit of no one but himself, and we get a brief sense of the unsettled depths beneath the surface of a man we grew up thinking we knew.