Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is a respected, award-winning journalist, so when his Esquire magazine editor (Christine Lahti) assigns Vogel to a 400-word quick profile of Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) that will be part of a larger article on heroes, he is resistant—why is a big-time writer going to waste his time with a little puff piece on a children-show’s host? But as we know, the editor always wins, and off Vogel goes to Pittsburgh where Mister Rogers' Neighborhood is filmed. There he meets the mild-mannered man but doesn’t even get the whole 20 minutes he was promised, and Mr. Rogers seems to turn most of Vogel’s questions back on him. This isn’t going to be as easy as it sounded.
Based on a 1998 article by Tom Junod, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood recounts how that 400-word throwaway turned into a 10,000-word cover story, and how the cynical, emotionally distant writer became friends with the kindly old children-show’s host. In the beginning, Vogel doesn’t just think the profile is beneath him, he’s also dealing with anger issues now that his estranged father (Chris Cooper) is trying to establish a relationship. He’s also facing the uncertainty of being a first-time father with his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson).
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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood has quite a bit going for it. Rhys, best known for The Americans, is excellent in the lead role, adeptly portraying Vogel’s anger issues and his vexation with both his assignment and subject. Cooper, likewise, is fantastic as usual, playing a flawed older man who is battling his own nature to try to make up for lost time. Director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), working from a script by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, uses clever techniques to bring the story to life, such as using miniatures like Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make-Believe and having Fred Rogers speak to us from his show about Vogel as he would talk to children about bitterness and sadness.
Yet A Beautiful Day is also formulaic and forced at times, taking the obvious and expected routes to tug at our heartstrings. And as likable as Tom Hanks is, I couldn’t help but see him as Tom Hanks throughout the film. Perhaps Hanks is just too iconic (or Rogers is), but it would have been interesting to see an unknown (or less-known) actor in that role, as Hanks is distracting.