Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, AReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/22/19 02:33:51
(Worth A Look)
Right off the top, it cannot be stressed enough that “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is not a biopic of the late and increasingly beloved children’s television pioneer Fred Rogers by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, when all is said and done, he is not even the central character in the film by a long shot. Instead, it tells the sort-of true story of a troubled journalist who found himself at long last begin to grapple with his own deep-seated troubles and traumas after striking up a friendship with Fred while on assignment to write a short piece on him for an issue of Esquire themed around the idea of heroes. Considering how closely this film comes on the heels of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” last year’s popular documentary look at the life and legacy of Fred Rogers, it is probably a good idea for this film to go down a decidedly different path instead of merely offering up recreations of things seen in that documentary, even with the almost insanely spot-on casting of America’s current Designated Nice Guy, Tom Hanks, in the part. However, while it is certainly a different moviegoing experience than many may be expecting, it is not always a satisfying one and indeed, it is in the moments where it goes off into unexpected area where it stumbles the most and it is in the scenes involving Fred himself that are ultimately the most effective.The real focus of the film is Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a thinly disguised version of Tom Junod, the Esquire magazine writer whose 1998 article served as its inspiration, and from the moment that we see him, he seems the least likely person imaginable to watch a movie about Mr. Rogers, let alone be the focus of one. He is cynical, abrasive and dedicated to his work to the extent that his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) and infant son often seem like afterthoughts to him. It doesn’t take long to figure out the probable source of Lloyd’s eternal angst and inability to fully open his heart to others—at his sister’s wedding, he runs into the father (Chris Cooper) that he has been long estranged from and it is only a few minutes before they wind up punching each other in the face. To his credit, Dad wants to at least try to make amends but Lloyd will have nothing to do with that or him—ignoring the old man even when he spends the night sleeping in his car outside Lloyd’s apartment in an effort to talk to him. Why would someone like Lloyd be selected to write a 400-word piece on Fred for Esquire? According to Lloyd’s editor (Christine Lahti), it turns out that Fred was the only subject who was willing to be interviewed by him.
Before long, Lloyd makes contact with Fred, first over the phone and then to a visit to the television studio in Pittsburgh where he does his show. Thanks to his resolutely cynical and untrusting nature, Lloyd is convinced that Fred cannot possibly be as nice, kind and understanding as he presents himself to be and that “Mister Rogers” is just a character that he plays. To that end, he becomes determined to expose the “real” Fred but during his conversations with him, it slowly begins to dawn on him that Fred might be the real deal after all. As for the ostensible subject of the interview, he quickly deduces that Lloyd is hurting for reasons that perhaps even he is unable to fully articulate, not unlike many of the children that he has encountered over the years. More importantly, he recognizes that Lloyd is essentially a good person who, like him, wants to use his job as a way of helping others but the sense of anger that drives him professionally is also damaging him in his personal relationships. Therefore, he tries to use his interview time with Lloyd to help him get to the root of his pain and anger so that he can work through it before it ends up fully consuming him.
In certain aspects, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is a trippier movie than one might expect. Structurally, it resembles an episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”—it starts off with Fred walking onto the familiar set while changing into his equally familiar cardigan, there is a brief video that shows how a magazine is put together, certain transitions are illustrated with model cars and roads and, in one of the more audacious gambits, Lloyd finds himself shrunk down to puppet-size and placed in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. These scenes are fun and do a good job of balancing nostalgia with irony without coming across as too cynical of mean-spirited. The scenes between Lloyd and Fred are also quite good in the way that they depict the collision between the easy cynicism that someone like Lloyd develops as a way of dealing with his hurts and the more hard-fought optimism that someone like Fred tries to bring out in everyone that he encounters because of his desire to help people. And yet, as the film does subtlety indicate, Fred, as he would be the first to admit, is not the total saint that many would depict him as. He is a man with his own troubles and hurts, some of which he has been able to work through and some that continue to linger in him. In one of the best scenes of the film, Lloyd begins to hit him with some harder questions and he instinctively deflects them by using his ever-present puppets as distractions from things that he doesn’t want to deal with.
Considering the fact that the Esquire piece wound up running for several thousand words, made the cover of its issue and went on to win a number of awards and considering the fact that the real-life author and Rogers continued their friendship long beyond the publication of the piece, one might have hoped for more of a focus on the two seemingly disparate people finding a common ground against all odds. Instead, the screenplay by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster spends far too much time on Lloyd dealing with his personal problems with both his father and his wife. These scenes are okay but it is material that we have seen in any number of movies and watching yet another movie about a troubled and wounded Yuppie soul coming to terms with things and becoming a better person as a result is just not that interesting. Director Marielle Heller gets good performances from the likes of Rhys and Cooper (who will be seen as a significantly different father figure in next month’s “Little Women”) but she can’t quite get this material to lift off into something interesting, certainly not to the degree that she did with last year’s fascinating “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” another film about a troubled and cynical writer.The best thing about “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”—the reason why you should still go and see it despite its general unevenness—is the performance by Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers. When it was announced that Hanks was going to be playing Mister Rogers, the general consensus was that it was a casting coup that could not be improved on. And yet, convincingly portraying the man must have been fiendishly difficult because while it is easy enough to replicate the man’s outward mannerisms—comedians have been doing that for decades—figuring out how to make him seem like an ordinary person and not the kind of living saint that others have depicted him as over time. Hanks does this brilliantly, depicting both the relentlessly decent, kind and giving man who helped to shape and influence the intellectual and emotional well-being of generations of kids and the ordinary human being who has felt the same amount of hurt, shame and anger as everyone else and who has dedicated himself completely to helping people so they can avoid feeling the pain that still lingers with him. If “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” as a whole had cut as deeply and humanely as Hanks’ performance, it might have transformed for the mildly interesting diversion that it is into the kind of movie worthy of a man like Fred Rogers.
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