A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Fred Rogers was much more than the creator of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1968-2001) one of the most beloved children’s TV series the 20th century, he was also one of the greatest philosophers of our time. His simple way of looking at life and emotions, and how he would dissect and explain these to young children proved so endearing that even adults could watch his show therapeutically. As such, his story takes on a particular relevance today when contrasting his kindness with the increasingly divisive and vulgar world. 2018 produced the mega-hit Won’t You Be My Neighbor (2018), which became one of the highest grossing documentaries in years (over $20 million at the box office), and now a narrative film with Tom Hanks has arrived on our screens.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) is actually not centered on the character of Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks), but rather on cynical journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) who works for Esquire magazine in New York in 1998 and is famed for being vicious with his profiles. Vogel is reluctantly tasked to interview Mister Rogers, whom he sees as someone putting on an act in order to sell his show and character; however, as he begins spending more time with his subject, he begins to get entranced by him.
It is hard to adapt Fred Rogers into a film, especially tonally since his show was so sweet and his public persona seemingly the same. However, director Marielle Heller is clearly passionate about her subject, and there are great homages and inspirations taken into her film. For one example, the entire story occurs inside a Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood episode (albeit a fictional one that never took place), in which Mister Rogers introduces his friend Lloyd and tells us of his troubles and anger. The film is littered with establishing location shots which instead of using a drone or helicopter, are simply taken through miniature models as Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood would use in their own location changes. This not only proves economical for Heller but also adds to the cheerful and innocent aura of the film.
The film is the third directorial effort from former actress Heller, who’s demonstrated with each passing film that she is an auteur to keep an eye out for. Her film last year, Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018) already showed her ability to craft incredible performances with Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant; knowing how to let her actors loose and when to nudge. She was particularly great with managing the many pauses that actual conversations have, so that her dialogues would always have a natural rhythm. This experience with silence would of course be incredibly appropriate with Mister Rogers, who was known for counter-programing the loud and voracious kids shows on TV at the time, with his gentle demeanor and his “minutes of silence,” where he would ask viewers and guests to think of those who have “loved you into this moment.” In can be easy to fall into tacky territory with these lines, however, Heller is able to craft an incredible balance, with an actual minute of silence passed in the film, with Hanks looking directly at the camera. I can confess it is hard not to follow his instructions and end up in a well of tears at the end of the golden minute.
Hanks essentially holds the film together. His casting is absolute genius, as the American actor also known to have an equally pleasant and genuinely kind public persona. Add to that his acting prowess and his every moment on scene, his every gesture, is taken as caring and honest. One particular scene, in which Lloyd observes Mister Rogers hidden behind the set as he manages a puppet, one can see Mister Rogers so deeply into his timid tiger persona that it would be insulting to even call it performance. And such is the feeling with Hanks’ portrayal throughout, it simply seems to ooze from him with a real genuineness, and by the end one wants to jump into the screen and belt out your feelings. If anything, thanks to Hanks the film ends up achieving what Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood did along its run: take away the fear in talking about our feelings.
However, it is in the scenes that Hanks is not in, that the film slows down. The cast is strong, with Matthew Rhys, Chris Cooper, and Susi Kelechi-Watson making up for the Hank-less scenes, but they never carry the magnetism or charisma that those moments would otherwise have. While the story of Lloyd is an intriguing one of family grudges and the slow act of forgiveness, I was still much more fascinated with what was under Mister Rogers’ hood. I understand that it can be an incredibly daunting task to analyze such a mythic character – and we do get glimpses of a flawed man, particularly in the great ending scene – however, they are mere peeks that tauntingly whet our appetite. Film is exactly the medium in which to take a risk and take a deep dive into the psyche of a character, not continue to observe him from afar. Although Heller is capable enough to hold the first half of the film with a compactness and tonal etiquette of Mister Rogers’ mantras, it’s in the latter half of the narrative, which require Lloyd’s emotional catharsis, that things begin to thematically fall together too predictably.
In the end, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a delight to watch, simply to see the teachings and infective perspective on life that Mister Rogers had. Hanks is absolutely subliminal in his role, but the film suffers from sidelining him too much. The overall cast is incredibly strong, and Heller seems to hone her directing skill even more; delivering a mostly compact narrative, but whose key emotional catharsis and resolution sputter out. If only to see Mister Rogers’ philosophical take on life, this film proves to be like a warm and comforting bowl of soup.