Director Marielle Heller, fresh from her Academy Award biographical film Can You Ever Forgive Me? , has returned with another film based on true events, the Fred “Mister” Rogers biopic A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Beautiful Day stars Oscar winner Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers, Primetime Emmy Award winner Matthew Rhys as journalist Lloyd Vogel, Susan Kelechi Watson as Andrea Vogel, Lloyd's wife, and Oscar winner Chris Cooper as Jerry Vogel, Lloyd's dad. This film was inspired by Tom Junod's 1998 Esquire article “Can You Say… Hero?” and the screenplay was co-written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster.

Lloyd is assigned to write about Fred Rogers, a task that he's not too thrilled about. This is because Lloyd is a cynical man and investigative journalist whose hard-hitting, truthful articles expose truths many may not know about. And with Lloyd harboring plenty of pain and anger which manifested in his youth, it's easy to see he and Fred are total opposites. But after many encounters and interviews, Lloyd is exposed to Fred's mindset and teachings and thus reflects upon himself. Being a new father with plenty of animosity towards Jerry, who cheated on Lloyd's mom and walked out on the family, Fred's presence is more than some Q&A's and a 400-word puff piece.

During its 107-minute running time, it's apparent Beautiful Day is not really about Mister Rogers. Heller's latest is about his effect on others, Lloyd specifically. His life philosophy, especially today, is unique – be kind to everyone. Fred Rogers practiced that his entire life and it allowed him to foster special relationships with everyone he met (and even those who simply watched him on TV). That quality is powerful since it instills love and positivity. Lloyd initially wondered if it was all an act, but he gradually realized Fred is a genuine and special man whose kindness spreads everywhere like sunshine.

Interestingly, because Lloyd is the central character, its most emotional moments occur only when Fred is onscreen. Lloyd's journey brings him to a point where he looks to fix his present by reconciling his past, but I found its drama was most effective when Fred's onscreen. Early on, Fred and Lloyd are taking a subway ride when the entire subway car sings to Fred one of his songs (“Won't You Be My Neighbor”). It's a beautiful moment, albeit a shoehorned one, but I couldn't help but tear up a little. In contrast, there are scenes without Fred involving Lloyd and his family which are touching yet carry less emotional weight. It's one of the film's major flaws – its main story is upstaged by the real-life emotional connection pre-established with a supporting character. It's proof Fred Rogers has a huge impact on the lives of many.

So how is Tom's performance as Fred Rogers? Although it's not his finest turn, Tom Hanks is fantastic. It's difficult to completely see at him as Fred, especially since his eyes are a dead giveaway and Hanks' voice is a deeper than Rogers'. But Hanks successfully mimics all the traits and quirks that Fred Rogers had and can easily sell the all-around nice guy angle. So it's not perfect but it's really good. It might be enough to earn Hanks a sixth Oscar nomination.

Viewers may recognize Rhys from the television spy drama The Americans. As Lloyd, his role is the more complex one since he's battling inner demons in front of a man whom Lloyd mentioned is, “The nicest men I've ever met.” Lloyd goes through plenty of ups and downs and he's not truly happy. He masks his pain, often poorly, and buries himself in his work. It's a fine performance and Rhys is up to task. Still, though, the shine's all on Hanks and Fred Rogers, which leaves Beautiful Day uneven because we all want to focus solely on Rogers.

Beautiful Day offers a unique filming perspective. At times Heller shot in 4:3 (for the recreation of the television program, Mister Rodgers' Neighborhood); and at other times they're in 16:9 (for most present-day scenes). At times Heller blends the TV show with present events; those scenes are in 4:3 with a look and feel of the original television show (even the film's opening scene may be lifted exactly from the opening credits from Mister Rogers' Neighborhood). I see it as the director mixing Lloyd's reality with Fred's philosophies which is slick way of letting viewers know that Lloyd is listening to what Fred's saying.

Although it's not an instant classic, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is an excellent film that can impact many with the things Fred Rogers says and does while displaying the importance of staying positive during dark times. Heller understands Rogers' legacy and his effect on the world, and she did a great job of shining a light on that. But this isn't a Fred Rogers biopic, which may be disappointing for his fans. Regardless, Beautiful Day is inspirational and motivational with fine performances and positive messages.

4 stars out of 5


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