A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, 2019
Directed by Marielle Heller
Starring Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Chris Cooper, Susan Kelechi Watson, Enrico Colantoni, Maryann Plunkett, Tammy Blanchard, Wendy Makkena, Sakina Jaffrey, Carmen Cusack, Noah Harpster, and Maddie Corman
Based on the true story of a real-life friendship between Fred Rogers and journalist Tom Junod.
Reviews are not necessary to know that A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, a movie where Tom Hanks embodies Fred Rogers under the direction of the supremely talented and underappreciated Marielle Heller (the overlooked diamond The Diary of a Teenage Girl and last year’s Oscar-nominated Can You Ever Forgive Me?) is worth anyone’s time, including the hopelessly cynical. Although I will continue for those of you that assume there can’t possibly be anything substantial to take away from a touching and celebratory look of a man that some might view as lame, due to the very inviting and gentle behavior that to this day still inspires human beings to occasionally offer a helping hand or enact a simple nice gesture that makes someone’s day.
Regarded as one of the most compassionate and kindest people within the sometimes seedy world of Hollywood, Tom Hanks is simply the only choice for the role. Coming off of last year’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (that was miraculously robbed of an Oscar), it’s a daring move to put this into production and release it the year after. Initially, it felt completely unnecessary and pointless getting this to attempt comparing to something so recent that will likely stand the test of time as not only one of the best documentaries of the decade but the definitive study of Mr. Rogers’s legacy and persona.
A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood eradicates those concerns immediately, starting off with Tom Hanks covering the theme song while set up prepared to do an episode of the show. His voice is soothing and his presence is as warm as a cozy blanket, easing us into this fresh spin on the standard biopic. Mr. Rogers (there’s really no point mentioning Tom Hanks anymore considering he blends into the role like a chameleon) begins showing viewers a series of pictures with each one behind ta flap on a wooden board. The first few are some recognizable faces from the show, and then we get a photograph of a man with a bloody nose; someone filled with anger unable to let go to the past and incapable of opening up emotionally
Matthew Rhys is Lloyd Vogel, an argumentative article writer that doesn’t have much of anything nice to say about anyone, which makes him all the more surprised and confused that he is the only one Fred Rogers is interested in meeting for a profile (the character and story are based on real-life journalist Tom Junod). To us, it’s the opposite of a surprise; Fred Rogers sees it as an opportunity to course-correct another soul on a kinder life path. Naturally, it’s not going to be easy as Lloyd is having difficulties forgive his father Jerry (Chris Cooper) for a dysfunctional childhood and, in his mind, leaving him broken. Lloyd has trouble listening to his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) and being there for his own family, soon getting into a fistfight with his dad at a sister’s wedding (he also repeatedly mocks the sister for having multiple failed marriages).
As one could probably expect, Lloyd isn’t too enthusiastic about his assignment to profile Fred Rogers (which is also not his normal line of work as a journalist), someone he perceives to be a hokey child’s entertainer that is not worth spending any time interviewing. Much like we are taken away by the kindness Mr. Rogers exhibits to every soul around him on-set, the brief experience does something to Lloyd who comes to see the TV show host as complex. However, this is not just an actor’s showcase where Mr. Rogers disarms everyone in the room with his own blunt instrument called kindness, flipping the conversation into poignant questions aimed directly at Lloyd, but also an exercise that sees Marielle Heller tapping into fantasy. There’s a scenario that catches Lloyd off-guard causing him to faint, dreaming about being on an exaggerated version of the show, serving as the perfect balance to emotionally hefty exchanges such as the all-powerful minute of silence. Equally satisfying is the whimsical score from Nate Heller (obviously, a regular collaborator) and recognizable musical cues from the show itself.
Having first risen in popularity due to his ability to convey deep and sometimes dark material to children in a productive and educational manner, it only makes sense that A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood gives Mr. Rogers the task of getting through to a different kind of child in Lloyd’s antics. For as many dialogue exchanges as there are about Lloyd’s personal life, there are just as many glimpses into fascinating details about Fred Rogers behind the scenes (such as dealing with a temper of his own or discussing what it’s like to be a child of his). There is still quite a bit left to explore regarding Lloyd’s mental state and problems, but it’s forgivable considering that’s not necessarily the approach a movie about Mr. Rogers should take anyway. Above all else, it’s a tearjerker illustrating how much every second of life matters; it should be spent rebuilding frail connections, not further damaging them.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com