A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a strange movie which taps into my own current of irritation. To love it, I suspect that you need to be an ardent and longstanding fan of its central character – Fred Rogers, the host of a children’s program beloved by millions of Americans. Failing that, it would help to be a devotee of group therapy. Despite the praise heaped on the film and on Hanks’ portrayal, which has an Oscar nomination, it’s hard to tune in to the fervent tone of straight-faced sincerity which permeates every scene.
The script is based on an Esquire magazine article by Tom Junod, who was given the job of profiling Rogers in 1998. He responded to the assignment with the resentment of a hard-boiled investigative reporter handed a puff piece but he was gradually disarmed by the disconcerting discovery that his and Rogers’ roles were reversing themselves. Rogers was turning out to be one of those rare creatures – an interviewee who would rather talk about his interviewer’s life than his own.
Hanks turned down the role at first, signing on only after he learnt that the director was to be Marielle Heller, who has done two terrific films – Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) and the Lee Israel story, Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018). Clearly, she settled his doubts about being able to bring the story off. And it might have worked if only there were something tangible to take from it but the problem lies in the platitudes. All we get from Rogers are thought bubbles – generic bits of advice which could well have floated out of a self-help manual.
Despite that smile, Hanks’ portrayal is remarkably accurate. Mr Rogers, as he was always known, died in 2003 but you can find videos of him online and Hanks has him. There are plenty of props to work with – the cardigan and white tennis shoes that Rogers put on at the start of every show, together with the puppets he worked from behind a screen. But Hanks also catches his air of slow deliberation, his way of eyeballing his audience while delivering each aphorism as if it had been distilled from hours of contemplation. And finally, there is his modesty. No doubt, it, too, was heartfelt but it comes across as one more component of a carefully constructed persona.
The script has fleshed out the character of Junod by giving him a semi-fictional background. He becomes Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a man still harbouring a grudge against his feckless father, Jerry (Chris Cooper), who walked out on the family when Lloyd’s mother was dying. For years, Lloyd has refused to see him but Jerry and his second wife turn up at the wedding of Lloyd’s sister, and there are fireworks.
Afterwards, Lloyd’s wife can’t calm him down. Nor can Jerry’s dogged attempts to make amends but somehow Mr Rogers can, leading him through a series of serenely enunciated sermons as Lloyd continues his profile. He follows him around at work and at home, where Mr Rogers and his wife, Joanne (Maryann Plunkett), live out their ideally happy marriage, demonstrating their devotion to one another with their fondness for playing piano duets.
Hanks is perhaps the only actor who could have made any sense of the part, having achieved his own brand of saintliness in Hollywood’s current pantheon yet he doesn’t seem comfortable here. His smile is the giveaway. There’s something unnerving about it. It looks as if it’s signalling a warning that Mr Rogers’ seemingly impenetrable patina of niceness could crack at any moment and spill a torrent of nastiness all over the screen. If we ever needed proof that our flaws make us human, it’s here. Perfection makes dull company.