A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
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.
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."
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
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.
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
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."