When Oscar nominations were announced, those who had not seen A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood were likely surprised to find Tom Hanks in the best supporting actor category. In the tradition of regular biopics, Hanks would feel like an awards favorite: a famed American actor playing a famed American figure, chewing up the scenery as he fights for what is right and just. But, in the end, Rogers was always a spiritual guide and every teacher needs a student through which to succeed. The possible saving grace and fatal flaw of A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood is that very student: fictional movie journalist, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys).
From director Marielle Heller, A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood follows Vogel as he profiles famed children’s television personality Fred Rogers, while simultaneously raising a newborn son and coping with the emotional neglect of his own estranged father, Jerry (Chris Cooper). Based on an article by Esquire writer Tom Junod, Vogel is a slightly fictionalized figure who finds his life at a crossroads, just in time to learn a valuable lesson from America’s king of morality. Instead of a sweeping, grandiose biopic, Heller has opted to create something much smaller and quieter, creating a question of what could have been.
Profiling someone as iconically good natured as Fred Rogers is likely an impossible task. Heller has said often on the interview trail that portraying Fred Rogers requires a gateway, like Vogel, in order to understand Rogers’s essence without creating a false sense of conflict or grating kind of annoyance. By making this decision, Vogel’s story is clearly in the foreground, forcing the audience to graft their own experiences on his trauma and extrapolate their own thoughts and understanding of Rogers’s wisdom.
Thoroughly capturing an essence of goodness and morality, Hanks shines as Rogers by fully embracing his “America’s dad” persona, delivering one of the most self aware performances of 2019. While not undergoing any kind of physical transformation to match Rogers’s stature and voice, Hanks doesn’t have to rely on a cheap trick to evoke Fred Rogers’s pure nature. After years of building up positive social capital, Hanks clearly wants to engage with his movie star identity and status as the American ideal.
As Vogel, Rhys might be taking on the even more challenging role. While Hanks can rely on his evergreen public perception and Rogers’s mass of goodwill, Rhys has to create something entirely at odds with the Rogers personality, somewhat antagonizing Rogers and avoiding help at all turns. In this capacity, Rhys is admirable yet entirely predictable. By having to carry the movie, Rhys is in a near impossible position, attempting to stabilize his time on screen despite the clear fact that his energy is weaker than Hanks as Rogers.
Heller attempts to rectify this issue by relying rather heavily on Vogel’s father, Jerry Vogel. Cooper as Jerry Vogel continues his incredible streak as one of the most dependable character actors in Hollywood, delivering a charismatic yet vulnerable performance that saves the film from abject failure. Cooper and Rhys’s chemistry is effective as the sparring father-son duo, despite the occasional feeling of forced conflict and plot mechanics. Ultimately, both performances amount to something respectable, but make the film uneven. In each of their scenes, Rogers’s shadow hangs heavily over their interaction, as the film can never reach its true ceiling without him on screen.
That isn’t to say Heller’s choices aren’t stylistically intriguing. By using Rogers’s show as a framing device, Heller has found an unexpected, innovative way to tell a semi biographical story with slight elements of magical realism and fantasy. The film’s opening scene in particular is remarkably effective in establishing the whimsical tone and slightly unsettling nature of what Rogers brought to the world, highlighting his masterful use of directness and silence. But that structure only makes the viewer yearn for Rogers’s calming guidance even more, distracting and disengaging an audience even further from Vogel’s struggle.
Heller’s previous work with films Diary of a Teenage Girl and Can You Ever Forgive Me? dealt in a similar emotional playground of familial dysfunction and regret, making her more than experienced with telling Vogel’s aspect of the story. The Vogel family’s scenes certainly aren’t bad, and at times Cooper even manages to transfix an audience by drunkenly stumbling through a wedding or crooning a Frank Sinatra song. But when a film chooses to use a journalist as a storytelling device through which to explore something of more public interest, there is a very delicate line to be walked. 2019’s Hustlers comes to mind as a film on the opposite end of the spectrum, who’s journalist figure, played by Julia Styles, impacted the film so minimally that her presence felt like a distracting gimmick. In A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, Heller creates something that is all gimmick. When Hanks is on screen, the trick works. When he isn’t, the movie can’t hang on.