As the crowd-pleasing documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor? was a surprise box office hit just last year, I was skeptical about the need for a biopic on Mr. Rogers, especially so soon, and especially one starring Tom Hanks, whose casting seemed simultaneously too on-the-nose (he's America's sweetheart) and too unlikely (he doesn't look or sound a thing like Fred Rogers). Heller and screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster apparently agreed, which is why A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is less a biography on Mr. Rogers and more a think piece on how Rogers's unnervingly calm, ministerial persona affected those who came into his orbit.
In fact, Fred Rogers is very much a supporting player in this film, which instead focuses its drama on an Esquire journalist named Lloyd Vogel (a heavily fictionalized stand-in for actual Esquire journalist Tom Junod, here played by Matthew Rhys), a cynical writer with a major chip on his shoulder about his long-absent father (Chris Cooper). Against his wishes, Lloyd is dispatched from New York to Pittsburgh to profile Rogers for the magazine, and Rogers winds up profiling him instead.
The very point of A Beautiful Day is that you are meant to care for this angry stranger as Rogers does: it is as much a reflection of Rogers' philosophy of kindness as it is an examination of his aptitude for spinning the conversation away from himself and onto the person he's speaking with. Regardless, your appreciation for A Beautiful Day will depend on how much you expected it to be about Mr. Rogers, and how much interest you have in Lloyd's story, which takes up the bulk of the film.
Heller directs with great visual wit: several scenes are shot with the same clunky WQED video cameras that shot Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, and Rogers' Land of Make-Believe repeatedly horns its way into the film, whether it's during the taping of Mr. Rogers, in a wild dream sequence for Lloyd, or transitions between New York and Pittsburgh. (The miniature work is utterly charming.) Even the very opening, a long, uncut sequence with Hanks-as-Rogers introducing both his show and Lloyd's character, seems to say, "We know Tom Hanks doesn't look like Fred Rogers, so we're just going to make you stare at him for the next three minutes until you accept him in the role, so we can get on with the story."
Indeed, Hanks makes you forget that he's nothing like Fred Rogers – no surprise, since Hanks has never not delivered an earnest, committed performance – and he captures the essence of the man without descending into caricature. As for Rhys, his sad-sack face makes him a perfect choice for the role of Lloyd. And while I admit that I never totally got into Lloyd's story, I certainly got what Heller was trying to do, and ultimately found the film quite affecting. It works the tear ducts in ways both similar and different to Won't You Be My Neighbor?, and, like that documentary, leaves you wishing there were more people like Fred Rogers in the world.