It turns out I was wrong about Mister Rogers. As a kid I watched him every day, but, like every child of my generation, I had no choice. It was a hostage situation, entertainment-wise. In pre-cable days, PBS was the only channel showing daytime programming aimed at anyone but low-I.Q. housewives. Even so, I seethed and boiled with disbelief at this narcoleptically inane puppeteer and his just-regaining-consciousness-post-coma manner of speaking. I did not yet know the word “condescending,” but the way Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood talked down to children as though we were stroke victims made me want to set cars on fire. I’m not saying Mister Rogers was so boring that he inspired the The Warriors generation of marauding youths to go out wilding, but I’m not not saying that. Ten years of watching this guy, and a taste for mayhem might be the only logical response. High up on the list of grudges I hold against my own kids is that they got to grow up nourished by the vastly more endearing and entertaining animated spinoff Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, which is to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood approximately what an iPad is to a slate.
The thing I was wrong about is this: Mister Rogers was not condescending to children. He was like that with everybody. We learn in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, in which the fuel-injected human charm machine Tom Hanks slows himself down to about twelve syllables an hour, that Fred Rogers really was that nice, gentle, and sweet. So I stand corrected on the condescending bit. Fred Rogers was, as far as we know, a super-duper nice guy, albeit a lousy entertainer. Now back to the movie, which is an imitation of his television show and is terrible in a way slightly different from his television show, but only slightly.
Perhaps I’m not the target audience for this slow-moving, punitively earnest movie. I’m not sure who is. People with more patience than I’ve got, maybe. Still, the movie does have a character someone like me can identify with: a fictitious writer named Lloyd Vogel, who is loosely based on a profiler for slick magazines. Vogel opens the movie by saluting “my fellow misfits” — which sounds a bit odd coming at a posh, exclusive, absurdly expensive black-tie awards ceremony in Manhattan. Why do elites think of themselves as “misfits”? He moves on to this thought: “So why do we write for magazines for a living? Honestly, because doing anything else doesn’t seem quite like living at all . . . sometimes, just sometimes, we get to change a broken world with our words.”
Hang on, this guy finds the apex of human existence to be . . . writing articles for fashion magazines nobody reads? I worked at People (which at least people actually did read) for eight years, and one thing I can tell you about our crew is that nobody confused himself with Jonas Salk. “Change a broken world with our words”? We were lucky if we could get through the day without being screamed at by Renée Zellweger’s publicist. On our to-do list, “fixing the world” was about 500 spots lower on the list than “get Carrot Top for Sexiest Man Alive.” Moreover, our editors, trained in the somewhat WASPy and phlegmatic Time Inc. register, were at least resistant to hyperbole. “Doing anything else doesn’t seem quite like living” is exactly the kind of hysterically overwrought balderdash that editors stomped all over, even when our subjects would say things like this. Anyone who would apply this description to being a magazine writer, a person whose profession it is to ask interesting people about stuff they’ve done, is so obtuse that he shouldn’t be allowed near a media outlet in the first place. People who put out forest fires, or deliver babies, or kill terrorists: They are doing stuff that matters. Magazine writers do things like writing bitchy, trying-to-be-clever Esquire cover stories suggesting Kevin Spacey was gay. Which is what the guy whose life this movie is based on did.
The only reason for the movie to have Lloyd Vogel mouth such fathead statements is that they’re supposed to make us care about the soul of a random magazine writer, but they don’t, and nor does anything else in the movie. Lloyd Vogel is, as played by Matthew Rhys, a jerk who signals his need for salvation by Mister Rogers by slugging his dad (Chris Cooper) at his sister’s wedding, although this didn’t happen in real life. (The Spacey thing is far more interesting anyway, one of many miscues on the part of the screenwriters.) As penance for his various sins, Lloyd is told to profile Mister Rogers. By his woman editor, in his multi-culti office. (Esquire didn’t have a woman editor in the Nineties, when the film is set. It doesn’t have a woman editor now. It has never had a woman editor in its nearly 100-year existence. There are some interesting ramifications to this, too, that get ignored in the script.)
Hanks isn’t the star here; he’s the Clarence the Angel figure who helps Lloyd appreciate stuff, notably his old dad, and get his life back on track. Since this is preemptively signaled in the opening five minutes, the existence of the remainder of the movie for me consisted of a lot of watch-checking and thinking, “Got it, thanks.” I realize famous actors love to play famous dead people because this usually gets them Oscar nominations, but is that really reason enough to make a movie? There are a few dozen scenes, all of which reiterate the same point, in which Fred Rogers gently counsels Lloyd Vogel to not be such a nimrod, jerkwad, and dillweed. (Come to think of it, I think I’d be better at this game than Fred Rogers, though my therapeutic technique would borrow heavily from Sam Kinison.) These scenes start out disarming but turn into the opposite of that. I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt like arming after the scene in which Lloyd gets shrunken down to the size of one of Mr. Rogers’ hand puppets and learns his lessons from the other magical puppets in his own very special episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Can you say eh-meh-tic?