Why on Earth would you make a movie about Mr. Rogers that isn't really about him?
By Chase Hutchinson
Within the first minutes of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, I knew we were in trouble. The opening of the film starts as you see in many of the trailers with Tom Hanks going through the routine many are so familiar with of Mr. Rogers opening his show by coming home and singing to the audience. However, it quickly veers off course of this when Mr. Rogers shows a photo of a different man who he introduces as Lloyd. He says Lloyd is having a hard time forgiving and that we are going to learn about him today.
I empathize with Lloyd as I too am having a hard time forgiving.....that is, forgiving this movie for making the bizarre decision to make Mr. Rogers a side character in his own story. I still am baffled as I am saying that out loud, but it is true: this movie pushes Mr. Rogers to the side to instead focus predominantly on the character of Lloyd, a grumpy and cynical journalist who is disconnected from his family due to feelings of pain stemming from abandonment.
In theory, there could be a way where this is an interesting framing mechanism to tell this story and there are small hints where I can see what it is going for. Showing how Mr. Rogers cared about others and how he would bend over backwards to help someone he had only just met could be compelling. The only problem is that Mr. Rogers is never given much of his own development. In fact, the movie makes that a repeated element which quickly wore thin.
The basic story is that Lloyd has been tasked with writing a short profile on Rogers and upon visiting his show begins to learn about the man behind the myth. The scenes where they talk are some of the best in the movie but that isn't saying much. The problem arises in that Rogers will repeatedly deflect and avoid questions about his own struggles. This makes it so the narrative feels lopsided and overly interested in Lloyd who just isn't a compelling character.
Lloyd is given a fairly generic and cliche story where his father who left him is making an attempt to reconnect with his family which Lloyd is opposed to. If this somewhat bland stock storyline existed to show how Mr. Rogers helped work through the darker conflicts in our lives and exposed how he too had troubles in his life, that would be one thing. Instead, the entire movie is centered around that plot line and it drags down the story immensely.
What would have been a subplot crowds out what should have been the main plot
I am aware this sounds harsh, but it really cannot be conveyed how much of a bad decision this was. In a movie that had some solid performances (Hanks when we do see him brings more to the role than the movie deserves) and directorial flair (Marielle Heller proves to be a director to continue to watch) for the story to so drop the ball on what should have been a slam dunk. There is a world where better writing would maybe have saved this movie, it is just not the world we are living in.
When the end of the movie almost entirely forgets that Rogers was in it, I knew that there wasn't much to save it. I have contemplated why this is. Was Hanks too much of a movie star to have around on set every single day? Did they have to restructure the story due to this? There has to be some explanation as to why the character that is the most interesting and central to the story is given such short shrift. This can't have been intentional, right?
I would say there is around 5-10 percent of this movie that is compelling. You could make a good movie out of that small sliver of the overall movie. Without going into details, the end sequence and shot was the most interesting of the film as it hinted at how Rogers was dealing with internal conflict without beating you over the head with it as the rest of the story did. It was a brilliant example of showing versus telling and it's directed as well as acted perfectly.
It is just a shame that that came far too late to salvage whatever the rest of the story was trying to be. The story is too fundamentally broken for even Mr. Rogers to fix and that is a disappointment. There are small moments of genuinely moving and heartfelt sentiment that felt more in line with what Rogers himself tried to convey through his show. It is therefore even more of a shame that the rest of the movie doesn't even come close to doing him justice.
If you are looking for something that more fully captures the spirit and goes into more depth about the man known as Mr. Rogers, watch the documentary from last year Won't You Be My Neighbor. You can probably skip this one as I have almost already forgotten most of the movie itself save for those small glimpses of what could have been. I will probably never rewatch it save for that final arresting scene as that is the only redeeming moment that will stick with me.