Two out of four stars
Arriving with loads of pre-release hype and beyond high expectations from both audiences and critics, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is going to disappoint a lot of people wishing to see a biography about Mr. (Fred) Rogers (Tom Hanks). Disjointed, tonally inconsistent, depressing and far too artsy for most tastes, this movie is one of the most blatant bait-and-switch flicks in recent memory.
Suspicions started two weeks ago when some awards prediction websites began reporting the studio (Sony) was going to push Hanks in the Supporting Actor category. Wait a minute. Tom Hanks — the guy on the poster dressed as Mr. Rogers in a movie with a title that is a classic Rogers catch-phrase – plays a supporting character? Yes, boys and girls, Mr. Hanks has secondary role in this movie.
The main character – Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) – is based on writer Tom Junod, whose lengthy, 10,000+ word profile piece “Can You Say…Hero?” appeared in the November 1998 edition of “Esquire” magazine. The changing of a non-fictional lead character coupled with the words “based on a true story” at the beginning could mean what you are about to see might be largely made-up. The mixing of facts and fiction in movies is nothing new, and doing so doesn’t equate to any kind of ethical or artistic breach; but intentionally misleading the audience while hawking your movie does.
In recent interviews, Marrieta resident Junod has voiced marked displeasure with the many liberties taken by screenwriters Michah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster (and director Marielle Heller — “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”). To go into the details of the many discrepancies between Junod and his fictional on-screen counterpart would result in the revealing lots of spoilers. But, safe to say, he’s not the Angry Young Man the movie suggests. This could go far in explaining why Junod’s name was changed.
As told in the movie, Lloyd is “difficult” (read: uncompromising and honest with a low tolerance for BS) and according to his editor Ellen (Christine Lhati), Rogers is the only one of the 50 to-be-profiled “heroes” who would agree to an interview with Lloyd. As an investigative reporter, Lloyd is somewhat insulted that he’s being assigned to write a 400 word “fluff piece” about a children’s TV show host. He is eager to get it over with and resume life with his wife and newborn son.
From the get go, it becomes clear to Lloyd that Rogers will not be a typical subject. It’s not that he’s intentionally difficult but during the half dozen or so meetings between the two men, Rogers hijacks the interviews, wishing to turn the encounters into de facto therapy sessions.
An ordained minister, Rogers recognizes Lloyd as a “tortured/damaged” soul and wishes to heal him. This becomes the crux of the main plot. Lloyd gets his interview – albeit in hazy, fragmented portions – but in exchange will be asked to bear his soul. It’s not all that far removed for the relationship between the Anthony Hopkins and Jodi Foster characters in “The Silence of the Lambs.” “Quid pro Quo” so to speak.
Lloyd is the way he is because of his neglectful father Jerry (Chris Cooper) – a blustery, hard drinking type who, again, according to the movie, left Lloyd, his sister and their mother, who was soon going to die of cancer. While sister got over it, Lloyd hasn’t, and Jerry – bless his heart – is determined to ingratiate himself back into Lloyd’s life, period.
While the movie received a relatively accurate “PG” rating, it is completely inappropriate for under-13 children. It is darkly serious, deals with messy adult issues — alcoholism, abandonment, death and a lead character which is not in any way “child-friendly.” Having Hanks put on a cardigan, khakis and sneakers while speaking in a slightly affected voice (he sounds more like Forrest Gump than Rogers) somewhat works on the surface. But he is not the right guy for the role. Then again, casting a known and bankable actor to look like and play Mr. Rogers would be a major challenge.
The bottom line here is this a movie that should have never been made. It’s not a biography about Mr. Rogers, it’s not historically accurate and it’s a major downer. If you’re in the market for a far better movie that is an actual birth-to-death Mr. Rogers biography, rent or stream last year’s excellent documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” It covers virtually every event of this incredible man’s life and does so without the base alloy of dramatic embellishment or outright narrative fudging.