Sweet and Engaging
There’s a key scene about halfway through A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood in which cynical journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), utters under his breath, "He's about the nicest person I've ever met.” Of course, Lloyd is talking about Fred Rogers, the host of PBS’ long-running children’s television program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. It marks the point at which Lloyd, who is interviewing Rogers for a magazine article, begins to realize that not everyone is like himself. There are actually nice people in the world.
In the journalistic arena, Lloyd has developed an intimidating reputation as a tough-as-nails investigative reporter for Esquire magazine. However, his taste for malicious takedown pieces of public figures has left the writer with few willing interview subjects, and even fewer friends. When given the assignment for a brief puff piece on the beloved children’s entertainer Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks), Lloyd begrudgingly accepts the assignment, but with the intention of pulling back the curtain to reveal a hidden truth behind the sweet, gentle television icon. So it is especially rewarding – and is one of the film’s biggest coups – to watch Lloyd slowly begin to realize that Fred just might indeed be the nicest person he’s ever met.
An important thing to know about A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is that the film isn’t a biopic about Fred Rogers. If you want that, go watch last year’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor, a wonderful documentary from Morgan Neville that gets into the essence of who the man was and the importance of what he brought to the world through his television program. Instead, the story in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood – as well as the Lloyd Vogel character – is inspired by the 1988 article “Can You Say … Hero?” by Tom Junod which appeared in Esquire magazine.
As the story plays out, we learn that Lloyd comes from a troubled childhood and is forced to turn his gaze inward when Fred uses his innate ability to turn the interview around on Lloyd, which causes the journalist to confront the traumatic relationship he has with his father Jerry (Chris Cooper). And that is where A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood gets most of its drive. As Lloyd’s distrust is slowly chipped away, we also find ourselves looking inward to reconnect with parts of our long since buried past.
It’s not an easy task for a director to so effortlessly drag an audience into a story as exquisitely as Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) does with A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. But the story from writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster is just so darn sweet and engaging it is nearly impossible not to be enraptured by its corny approachability. And the film’s affable charm is also, in part, due to Hanks’ perfect casting. Heller was apparently instrumental in getting Hanks to accept the role. It is a different film without him.
It is also worth pointing out that Hanks does not perform a Fred Rogers impression. He definitely has the look, voice, and mannerisms, but it’s the way in which he captures Fred’s essence that totally sells the performance. Hanks, a man equally known for his wholesome magnetism, displays a truth and quietness behind the eyes, and as a result, everything feels perfectly real.
Another of Heller’s big successes comes from the way she has structured her film – in the simple style we all came to know from Rogers’ television program. For scene transitions, her camera slowly pans through tiny clay and wooden models of the film’s main settings, Pittsburgh and New York City while little toy cars and airplanes zoom about to a piano tinkling the film’s theme music.
The film’s only knock – and it’s a minor one – comes from the fact that it follows last year’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor, a film that steals some of the Rogers thunder, having somewhat demystified the enigmatic man at the heart of both films. Regardless, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a lovingly crafted tribute to the influence Fred Rogers held over others… especially the broken. It takes on so many complicated emotions, from anger, death, cynicism, and heartache, yet feeds them to us in a way that is never overwhelming. Kind of like how he always did to children on his show. And thanks to all the elements that have come together so perfectly, it is indeed a beautiful day to be in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood again.
(Released by TriStar Pictures and rated “PG” for some strong thematic material, a brief fight, and some mild language.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.