November 2022

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)

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DIRECTOR: Marielle Heller

CAST: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper


A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, loosely based on a 1998 Esquire article “Can You Say Hero?” by journalist Tom Junod (with some names changed), is a well-intentioned, feel good ode to beloved television icon Fred Rogers (better-known simply as Mr. Rogers), whose children’s show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood ran from 1968 to 2001 (Rogers passed away in 2003). To that end, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is an inoffensive, sweetly sentimental little movie whose quietly affecting moments sometimes get lost amidst its own treacly earnestness (though, considering I might apply those last words to the show it’s depicting, maybe I’m just not the target audience). Those with nostalgic fond memories of the late Mr. Rogers might find it a moving experience, while those indifferent or unfamiliar with the subject might be unimpressed.

Tom Junod’s fictionalized movie stand-in is Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a surly, cynical investigative journalist with a career at Esquire and a wife (Susan Kelechi Watson) and baby but embittered by the unresolved chip on his shoulder involving childhood neglect and abandonment by his father (Chris Cooper); Dad wants to reconnect but so thick is the father-son tension that they come to blows at a family wedding. And on top of his personal issues, Lloyd—who’s known for hard-hitting investigative pieces and exposés—is dumbfounded when his boss assigns him to write a profile of Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks). “The hokey kids’ show guy?” Lloyd incredulously asks (“please don’t ruin my childhood” is his wife’s comment on the matter), and protests that “I don’t do puff pieces”. At first, Lloyd finds the relentlessly genial Rogers a “too good to be true” figure, but over the course of trying to carry out his assignment, he’ll be goaded by Rogers’ gentle prodding onto a journey of self-discovery that will lead him to heal his relationship with his father and strengthen his bonds with his wife and infant son.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not a biopic of Fred Rogers, whose life story was already chronicled in the 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (which included the reminiscences of Tom Junod, among many others). Rather, Junod’s fictionalized stand-in Lloyd is the main character, with Rogers as supporting character and narrator (of sorts) and tells a standard-issue redemption/family drama with Rogers serving as a sort of pseudo fairy godfather. The movie itself practically breaks the fourth wall to acknowledge this when Lloyd’s wife, after reading his completed article, comments that it’s not really “about” Fred Rogers, but more about Lloyd finding catharsis and closure through his interactions with Rogers and the latter’s gently prodding influence. Narratively, this is about as low-key and sedate a movie as one is likely to find, and Lloyd’s character arc and burying the hatchet with his father is entirely predictable. It’s a tame, feel good, “safe” little movie (not that one should expect anything very edgy from a movie featuring Mr. Rogers as a significant character), but there are some quietly affecting moments between both Matthew Rhys/Tom Hanks and Matthew Rhys/Chris Cooper that are capable of plucking at the heartstrings. At the movie’s core is the dynamic between Lloyd and Rogers; the cynical Lloyd goes into his assignment unenthusiastic and unconvinced of Rogers’ genuineness, but is eventually forced to concede that Rogers is not acting for the camera; this is emphasized when Rogers is dumbfounded by Lloyd referring to “Mr. Rogers” as his “character” (Lloyd’s real-life inspiration Tom Junod stated that there was no difference between the “real” Rogers and his onscreen persona). The character arc is all Lloyd’s; Rogers is the same at the end as the beginning, and is presented as a benevolent, albeit eccentric, figure who drops folksy nuggets of wisdom, “likes everyone but loves broken people”, as his manager puts it, and takes on Lloyd as a kind of pet project. Initially, Lloyd finds his patience worn thin by Rogers’ tendency to turn his interview questions back around on Lloyd himself, but little by little Rogers gently pushes him into opening up about his dysfunctional relationship with his father and his inner anger (at times, with his knack for flipping questions around on the one asking, and his probes, Rogers is slightly reminiscent of some benevolent opposite of Hannibal Lecter).

The filmmakers know no shame when it comes to mining nostalgia for maximum impact. The score is obviously inspired by that of the show and frequently incorporates direct snippets, Joanne Rogers (Rogers’ widow) and the real Mr. McFeely, David Newell, make cameos among the patrons in a Chinese restaurant scene, and we get meticulous recreations of the show’s miniaturized sets and episode segments, including Tom Hanks giving his renditions of both “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and “It’s Such a Good Feeling”. The movie is bookended with Hanks donning Rogers’ trademark sneakers and cardigan at the beginning, and then taking them off at the end, and there’s a moment where Rogers is treated to a spontaneous serenade by the other passengers on a New York City subway ride.

In fact, the weakest elements of A Beautiful Day are when it succumbs to excessive mawkishness, including the cloyingly cutesy affectations of using the show’s miniature sets in place of real city shots (when Lloyd flies from New York City to Pittsburgh, we get a shot of a toy plane on wires scooting to a landing against a miniature cityscape), and one sequence that gets downright trippy, in which Lloyd finds himself having a dream/nightmare of being shrunken down and trapped in the show’s miniature set surrounded by Rogers’ talking puppets. In fact, the entire movie is structured as a movie-length episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood—Hanks opens the movie by speaking directly to the camera in character as Mr. Rogers and introducing us to his “new friend” Lloyd, and we occasionally come back to him as host—handing down lessons about handling anger in constructive ways and the importance of forgiveness, only aimed at an adult audience.

Tom Hanks’ casting as Mr. Rogers makes a certain sense; it’s hard to think of another actor with an equally wholesome, “Mr. Nice Guy” reputation. Hanks doesn’t look or sound that much like Rogers, and apart from donning some minimal makeup and the trademark sneakers and cardigan, and approximating Rogers’ slow, deliberate speaking style, he and the filmmakers don’t do that much to bridge the gap, but Hanks succeeds where it’s more important by capturing the essence of the man, his kindness, gentleness, and seemingly almost preternatural serenity (although the movie takes pains to insist that Rogers was not “perfect” or devoid of negative emotions, and that he made a daily deliberate effort to find positive outlets for them). Lesser-known Welsh actor Matthew Rhys, probably best-known from the television series The Americans, does a serviceable job of traversing his generic character arc, although he’s largely stuck in a one-note mode of surly scowling. Susan Kelechi Watson is fine as his wife, and Chris Cooper gives a strong supporting turn as his estranged father.

Ultimately, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is the kind of movie that appeals to a niche audience; it might take Mr. Rogers’ nostalgic fanbase down a tear-jerking memory lane but might be dismissed as boring or as hokey as the show it’s based on by modern younger viewers looking for something more edgy or flashy. If it appeals to you, you probably know who you are.

* *1/2