A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Marielle Heller

Stars: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Chris Cooper, Susan Kelechi Watson, Maryann Plunkett, Enrico Colantoni, Wendy Makkena, Tammy Blanchard, Christine Lahti.

Tom Hanks in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)

For over thirty years Fred Rogers was the beloved host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the long running afternoon children’s television program on America’s PBS network. He used puppets to explore his experiences and impart moral messages to children. He also listened to the concerns of children and dispensed wise words and advice on how to cope with problems, anger, grief, and deal with their fears. He taught a philosophy of kindness and inclusion and had a profound effect on a generation of American pre-schoolers. In 2018 we saw Morgan Neville’s fabulous documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? which profiled Rogers and gave us insight into the man behind the image. 

This heart-warming and emotionally laden drama is not a straight biopic about the iconic Mr Rogers. Indeed, Mr Rogers is really a supporting character in the story. Rather, A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood tells the story of the impact that Rogers had on a cynical, deeply troubled middle-aged journalist. It is based on Can You Say…Hero?, journalist Tom Junod’s 1998 profile of Mister Rogers for Esquire magazine’s series of articles on America’s heroes, and the real-life friendship that eventually developed between the two men.

In this fictional take on the story, Lloyd Vogel (played by Emmy award winner Matthew Rhys from the tv series The Americans, etc) is an investigative journalist with a reputation for taking down his subjects. He is assigned to write a 400-word profile on the beloved television host. He approached the task with a healthy dose of cynicism, not believing that any person could be that nice and genuine and noble. Vogel had just become a father and was struggling with his personal life. He was estranged from his father Jerry (Chris Cooper), who abandoned Lloyd’s dying mother, and he blamed Jerry for his dysfunctional childhood. The long-standing resentment between the two comes to a head during a wedding reception. In trying to strip away the veneer of Rogers’ persona, Vogel is soon disarmed by Rogers’ honesty and decency, and somehow the tv host’s gentle way and manner and empathy help bring about a reconciliation and heal his family.

The film has been written by Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue (the awful Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil) and is filled with a sense of empathy and honesty and emotional depth that was missing from that flawed sequel. The film deals with some universal themes of childhood, parenthood, life, family, forgiveness, the healing power of love. The director is Marielle Heller, who taps into a strong element of nostalgia here and gives the material a melancholy tone. But the film is a bit too saccharine, and ultimately it lacks that harder and gritty edge that she brought to her previous film Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Here Tom Hanks comfortably slips into the role of the softly spoken Mister Rogers – this is perfect casting as Hanks captures his essence, his folksy charm and genial style, his warm genuine presence, and even his mannerisms. It’s easy to see why Hanks has been nominated for an Oscar for his wonderfully sympathetic performance here – what is harder to believe is that this is his first Oscar nomination since Cast Away twenty years earlier.

The film’s recreations of the iconic tv show itself are spot on. Kudos go to production designer Jade Healy (The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, etc) and her production team who faithfully recreate the look of the sets and the colour scheme of the show. She also had the ingenious idea of using a scaled down model of cities like New York and Philadelphia to signal every location change in the movie, which replicates one of the theatrical devices used in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood itself.

A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood is the perfect antidote for today’s cynicism, misanthropy and more selfish attitudes as it reminds us of the difference a bit of humility and niceness can make to those around us. The positive messages resonate long after the credits have rolled.

★★★

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