Right at the beginning of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” we get a reminder of how dorky, hokey, cheesy and incredibly slow Mr. Rogers (played by Tom Hanks in this movie) was. Yes, yes, he was also tender, kind, and totally wonderful (more on that below). But, man, was he slow.
And not at all fancy. The show was half Mr. Rogers putting on/taking off clothes while singing some not-totally-appealing song and half him playing with ratty old puppets. No effects, no gimmicks, no production value.
So, why was everyone drawn to him? Why did kids tune in to his show so religiously for so long (895 episodes!)?
That’s what investigative reporter Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) of Esquire Magazine wants to know in this movie, which is based on a true story. Vogel is not sure he buys Rogers’ whole absurdly wholesome, outrageously good persona. Unlike Rogers, Vogel isn’t a warm and fuzzy type. Or, as another character put it, Vogel is not exactly a “lover of humanity.”
Vogel has other issues too. He is angry at his dad, Jerry (Chris Cooper), for abandoning their family while his mom was on her death bed. He is worried that he is going to be a bad father too. The only thing he seems to know how to do is work.
So maybe Vogel is an unusual choice to do a piece about the beloved, kindhearted Mr. Rogers.
But Mr. Rogers doesn’t see it that way. Rogers wants to talk to Vogel. He is enthusiastic about it. The first time he talks to Vogel on the phone, Rogers asks, “Do you know what is the most important thing to me in the whole world right now?” He answers, “To be talking with Lloyd Vogel on the phone.”
Over the course of several meetings, Vogel tries to ask probing, difficult questions. But, more often than not, it is Rogers who ends up digging deeply into Vogel. Rogers wants to know about Vogel’s family, his background, what he likes, what’s bothering him. As a result, Vogel can’t get very far with his intended exposé.
Still, he tries. Vogel asks Rogers if it is a burden to always be dealing with other people’s problems. He asks whether Rogers’ children have found it difficult. He tries to tease apart Mr. Rogers, the character, from Fred Rogers, the person. Mr. Rogers doesn’t understand. He just wants to know about Vogel’s childhood stuffed rabbit.
Why? Why does he want to know about that? Why does he care?
Well, that’s just it—that’s the answer: He cares. He cares about Vogel. He cares about the kids that he meets and that tune into his show. He cares about them desperately.
In a 2002 commencement address at Dartmouth, Rogers says, “It’s not the honors and the prizes and the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourished our souls. It’s the knowing that … the bedrock of our lives from which we make our choices is very good stuff.”
He then adds that what this means is that, “You don’t ever have to do anything sensational for people to love you.”
For Rogers, Vogel is valuable. Just the way he is. That’s it. Not because he’s a good writer. Not because he works at Esquire. Not because he has something interesting or important or sensational to do or say.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is, like Mr. Rogers’ show, cinematically unremarkable. There’s nothing fancy about it. Yes, Tom Hanks and Matthew Rhys do a fine job. And, sure, the movie is well composed in some other ways. But it is not sensational because of its plot, effects, lighting, score, etc.
What makes this movie sensational is Mr. Rogers himself and what he was able to bring to people’s lives aside from all the dorky outfits, worn out puppets and cheesy jingles. Day-in, day-out, for over 30 years, he asked, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” And he really meant it. What could be more sensational than that?
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is rated PG for some strong thematic material, a brief fight and some mild language.