'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood' review: Tom Hanks is great, but...

Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune
Tom Hanks stars in "A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood," opening Thursday at Regal West Manchester and R/C Hanover Movies 16.

"A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" is not primarily about Fred Rogers, or "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," and it isn't a traditional biopic, not even a traditional two-headed biopic. You should know these things going into this eccentric, often moving third feature from director Marielle Heller, whose previous films — "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" (2015) and "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" (2018) — were seriously wonderful. This one's more of a ruminative mixed bag worth seeing and debating.

It focuses on the moral character development of a cynical magazine writer, played by Matthew Rhys ("The Americans"), assigned by Esquire magazine in 1998 to interview his temperamental polar opposite, the famously gentle, searching, reassuring and resoundingly kind public TV children's show host. Tom Hanks plays Rogers and, as you may have guessed, he's wonderful. With subtle but clearly well-researched care, he makes Rogers his own, neither sending him up or saint-ing it up. Hanks makes every interaction with an adoring fan, each diagrammatic step toward friendship with the writer, here named Lloyd Vogel, a lesson in listening and in truly filling a pause — crucial, because Rogers spoke with great, kindly deliberation.

Tom Hanks, right, and Matthew Rhys star in "A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood," opening Thursday at Regal West Manchester and R/C Hanover Movies 16.

"Oh, God, Lloyd, please. Don't ruin my childhood." In the script by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, Lloyd's wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), urges her grudge-prone husband to avoid writing a hit piece on a man who does not deserve such treatment.

In the movie Lloyd, a heavily fictionalized and renamed version of real-life writer Tom Junod, is a brand-new and heavily doubt-filled father, not much good within his own family unit, stuck in a miserable stand-off with his own wastrel father (Chris Cooper). Lloyd carries an invisible load of childhood baggage around with him, everywhere he goes. His dad left the family, and Lloyd's dying mother, at a profoundly selfish time. At the beginning of the film, an argument between drunken father and rage-filled son leads to a fistfight and a very bad odor.

This provides the backdrop for the Mister Rogers element, which is why people are interested in "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood," after all. Assigned by his editor (Christine Lahti, doing a lot with a little) to write a quick 400-word profile for Esquire's issue devoted to American heroes, Lloyd visits the "Mister Rogers'  Neighborhood" set in Pittsburgh. Much of the movie proceeds by way of the subsequent conversations between interviewer and interviewee. The film presents Rogers as somewhat less religion-forward than the real man, an ordained Presbyterian minister, though it's more a matter of the story structure leaving somewhere between 47% and 51% of the running time for the Rogers portion.

Tom Hanks, left, and Matthew Rhys star in "A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood," opening Thursday at Regal West Manchester and R/C Hanover Movies 16.

The movie takes a while to locate its preferred mixture of wry whimsy and earnest, quietly anguished drama. It begins as an imagined episode of the program, with the familiar Rogers intro, the change of shoes, the cardigan sweater and then the news that we'll be learning about Rogers' new friend, Lloyd, a man in pain with some problems to solve. As written, Lloyd threatens to turn into a monotonous narcissist pretty fast, and while the reasons for structuring the screenplay this way are clear — it plays up the massive contrast in personality between Rogers and, well, nearly everyone else in the world — "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" may stir up memories of an earlier double biopic, "Julia and Julia" (2009). That dealt with Julia Child's life and recipes but split its running time with the story of a contemporary food blogger plowing through every page of Child's most celebrated cookbook.

The other film Heller's recalls, for me, anyway, also comes from 2009: Spike Jonze's harsh and quite brilliant adaptation of "Where the Wild Things Are." I took my son, then 9, to that, and he resented its bruising depiction of childhood rages all the way. My wife and I took our 10-year-old to "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood," and it was not a good experience, "learning" or otherwise.

I love Heller's previous two features (for completely different reasons) and her work here with Rhys and Hanks and several others, including Watson, Maryann Plunkett (as Joanne Rogers, Fred's wife) and Cooper. The father character becomes the movie's damaged soul, seeking forgiveness. Rogers takes the time he needs to confront Lloyd about his unforgiving nature, and while it's whole-cloth fabrication, the scenes with Rogers and Lloyd's extended family are nonetheless affecting. (I love composer Nate Heller's jazz-inflected assist in these and other scenes; Rogers' show was similarly friendly toward the jazz idiom.)

Author Junod's real-life Esquire cover story will help you determine if you like Junod's artfully self-aggrandizing approach to his subject more than I do. The piece has recently been bookended by Junod's account of his post-cover story friendship with Rogers and his feelings about the new movie. The new movie has the unavoidable misfortune of following in the footsteps of last year's documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" This excellent Morgan Neville portrait of Rogers became a gratifying crossover commercial success. Now there are two Rogers movies in the world. Heller's is the odder, riskier and potentially bait-and-switch-ier of the two. But Hanks, especially, keeps the trolley on the rails, and everything Heller is after in this film comes together in a remarkable final shot depicting Rogers alone in the TV studio, having made another friend.


3 stars

MPAA rating: PG (for some strong thematic material, a brief fight, and some mild language)

Running time: 1:48