A film review by Craig J. Koban November 30, 2019

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD jjj
 

2019, PG, 107 mins.

 

Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers  /  Matthew Rhys as Lloyd Vogel  /  Chris Cooper as Jerry Vogel  /  Susan Kelechi Watson as Andrea Vogel  /  Enrico Colantoni as Bill Isler  /  Maryann Plunkett as Joanne Rogers  /  Tammy Blanchard as Lorraine

Directed by Marielle Heller  /  Written by Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD comes out quite inopportunely after last year's truly wonderful and inspiring documentary WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?, which covered Fred Rogers' iconic life and times as part of PBS' MISTER ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD that ran over five decades.  That doc was a legitimate piece of feel good filmmaking in chronicling the unending goodness of Rogers and what he meant to multiple generations of children.  A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD is drama inspired by an Esquire magazine article about the famed broadcaster, educator, and minister, but it pulls a surprisingly deceptive - but nonetheless effective - bit of bait and switch in terms of how it was marketed as a Rogers' biopic versus what we get in the final product. 

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD is not a movie about Fred Rogers.  Hell, it's not really even a biopic about his life.  

Certainly, the advertising of the film is most definitely guilty of peddling it as just those two things, which may have some in attendance feeling a bit cheated when it becomes clear that Rogers is more of a secondary and supporting character in his own story.  Thankfully, director Marielle Heller and screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster have some compelling narrative tricks up their collective sleeves here in terms of their film being essentially about the Esquire reporter that interviewed Rogers and how the latter's irreproachable kindness and generosity helped exercise many of the writer's personal demons that he was wrestling with at the time.  To be fair, A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD plays a bit fast and lose with the truth here and there, but the film still manages to wholeheartedly honor the memory of Rogers and what an incalculable level of positive influence he had on the young and old alike.   

When Rogers was interviewed for Esquire in 1998 his life was nearing its unfortunate end, as he would later succumb to stomach cancer in 2003.  Heller employs some intriguing stylistic choices in terms of bringing the story of this interview to life, more specifically in terms of how she opens and closes the film with the same type of low-res and low rent look and feel of the old MISTER ROGERS episodes of old, right down to faithfully and thanklessly replicating the tiny models of the host's neighborhood.  She takes it several steps forward in using the same model aesthetic throughout the film, employing quaint and cozy miniature renditions of the various cities at play here (New York, Pittsburgh, and the airports contained within them) to serve as establishing shots and transitions between scenes.  The stark simplicity of this approach is kind of refreshing, mostly because it allows viewers an easy mental portal back in time to just how warm, carefree, and inviting Rogers' show was to its viewers.  Within its first few minutes, A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD lathers on the nostalgic feels in strong, but not overbearing dosages. 

 

 

That, and Heller opens the film like a new MISTER ROGERS episode being resurrected from the vault, complete with the man himself (Tom Hanks), arriving home, singing his legendary show theme, and putting on his sweater and sneakers to introduce the audience to his "new friend" in Lloyd Vogel (loosely based on Esquire journalist Tom Junod, played by Matthew Rhys), who's developed a reputation for being a hard hitting, deeply cynical, and take no prisoners reporter that makes mince meat of his subject matter with his scathing articles.  He may not initially seem like a proper fit for an expose on Fred Rogers, but his editor is forcing him to do what he considers a "puff piece" that's beneath him, mostly because Lloyd has alienated himself from so many over the years that prominent public figures don't want to be on his receiving end.  Forced against his will and desire, Lloyd takes to his assignment with an emotional detachment and roll of the eyes, which greatly worries her wife and Rogers fangirl (Susan Kelechi Watson), who quietly pleads with her husband to not "ruin her childhood." 

Lloyd's initial meeting with Rogers goes well, even though the children's program host seems constantly pressed for time, which frustrates Lloyd to no end.  That, and Rogers' wholesomeness seems almost too much to credibly bare for the jaded and world wearing writer.  But, the more time he spends with the soft spoken and generous Rogers the more he begins to shed the layers of his icy facade, during which time we grow to learn the particulars Lloyd's life, for better and worse.  Rather wisely, A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD doesn't make Lloyd a one-note and easy to hate antagonist going up against Rogers' sweetness, seeing as the writer has ample emotional scarring.  He's a new dad, which intimidates him, but he too has daddy issues of his own stemming from a long and bitter estrangement with his own father in Jerry (Chris Cooper), who was once and alcoholic and left Lloyd and his mother, the latter of which died without her husband being present.  Now, Jerry has re-entered Lloyd's life as a mostly cleaned up man that wants to mend his past with his son, but Lloyd is so consumed by years of hate that the notion of making up with his father sickens him.  Part of the alluring angle of A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD is that it's really about Lloyd's pains, insecurities, and complex family relationships and how Rogers - serving as an interview subject and soft spoken therapist - tries to assist Lloyd to attain some level of spiritual healing. 

Even though, yes, this film is falsely advertised as a Fred Rogers biopic, Heller still manages the make a film that fundamentally understands what made the entertainer tick, despite him being a side player in his own story.  The movie rightfully shows Rogers as a man driven to value children and their uniqueness while simultaneously trying to impart a message of accepting and understanding yourself (and others) so you can become the best possible version of you.  There are individual moments of great dramatic power that drive this point home, most notably in a key sequence at a restaurant between Rogers and Lloyd when the former asks him to observe a minute of silence to reflect upon and celebrate the love of others: This builds to Heller closing in on Hanks in a remarkably potent and sustained close-up, with the actor breaking the fourth wall and staring at the audience with serene observation.  It's one of the most exquisitely rendered and powerful movie moments of 2019, all but showing how Rogers was a man of patience, stillness, and compassion. 

Something obviously needs to be said about Hanks' quietly mesmerizing performance as Rogers, a role that seems tailor made for the multiple Oscar winner.  He may not be a physical dead ringer for Rogers, nor does he sound a lot like the renowned broadcaster,  but Hanks isn't aiming for simplistic mimicry here.  He's really trying to encapsulate the soothing aura of plain spokenness and gentle compassion that typified this man, and all while showing him as a figure that's complex and riddled with his own pains and insecurities.  Hanks' performance wisely reminds viewers that Rogers had a larger than life presence with just about anyone he met, but he also was...just a man...trying to bring joy to a sometimes joyless world.  I think that there's an inherent risk with a film like this to come out as a one-note hero worshipping piece without much substance, but A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD isn't that myopic in approach at all.  It finds the flawed humanity in all of its characters, including Rogers himself, who has his own unique manner of dealing with pain and emotional wounds (which is driven home in the film's final and perfectly rendered shot).  Rogers was indeed a symbolic figure of inspiration to millions, and his message of hope and support speaks volumes in our jaded times, but even a person as transcendently good as him would sometimes mash down on his piano keys out of frustrating at times. And the fact that Hanks' award worthy performance here captures all of that with such an economy and modest strokes is noteworthy. 

Beyond that, the film also respects the inherent darkness of Lloyd's journey as well (Rhys arguably gives the film's trickiest and most nuanced performance) that has light at the end of the tunnel.  Still, there's no question that his character's redemption/salvation arc and the healing power of fathers and sons coming back together is the stuff of countless other dramas, not to mention that his story does overwhelm the film from exploring Rogers' life a bit more fully (lots of elements are left on the sidelines, like his own domestic life and his healthy, but sometimes troubled bond with his own children).  But, again, A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD is less a thoroughly detailed and layered biopic about its subject's life than it is more of an intriguing addendum to last year's brilliant and better documentary.  Heller's film is not about Rogers the man, but instead about how he was so limitlessly disarming as a positive figurehead of change that was able to connect with people of all races, ages, and backgrounds and somehow helped them find inner worth.  In my mind, Rogers was as close to a celebrity saint as one gets, but even his characteristic modesty would never acknowledge that.  As he calmly informs Lloyd at one point in the film, "Fame is a four letter word, but ultimately what matters is what we do with it."   

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