Director: Marielle Heller
Stars: Matthew Rhys, Tom Hanks, Susan Kelechi Watson
We didn’t really have Mr Rogers in the UK, but we had – and we have – Tom Hanks. From the every-man goofiness of his early comedies, through the earnest ’90s to the kind, middle-aged statesman of many a Steven Spielberg picture, Hanks has been there. Good natured… charming… (but still not good enough to get me to watch any of those Da Vinci Code pictures). His casting in Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood is inspired. His quiet imitation of Fred Rogers feels pitch perfect. But this isn’t a Rogers biopic. Rather, this is a love letter to the spell he cast.
UK cinema-goers not familiar with this man’s influence can catch up presently on Netflix, where Morgan Neville’s spirited documentary ode to Rogers – Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – is currently available to stream. But detailed foreknowledge of the man is not a prerequisite. This is thanks, in good part, to Hanks’ tender mimicry. Heller follows up her savvy awards contender Can You Ever Forgive Me? with another judiciously scaled slice of true life. It’s a tale of another writer coming into contact with celebrity, only this time a little less fraudulently.
The film’s focus is Esquire journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys); a somewhat caustic and misanthropic character based on real author of the cover story, Tim Junod.
Lloyd is a new father; his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) is looking after baby Gavin while he works. Andrea loves him, but there’s a strain or pressure to Lloyd. A cloud, if you will. The cause of the dark weather that follows Lloyd is, in his eyes, his father, who ran out on his mother when she was on her death bed. A punchup at a wedding between the two men sets forth the faltering, troubled nature of their relationship. When Lloyd is sent on assignment to profile famous children’s TV presenter Fred Rogers, he takes this baggage with him. It’s written all over his face.
Rogers recognised the child in everyone. And on meeting Lloyd, he senses the familial crisis bubbling beneath the surface. Lloyd interviews Fred Rogers, but the inquiry goes both ways. A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood quickly becomes a tale of healing or thawing. Of becoming better acquainted with one’s emotions after years of stubborn subterfuge.
Rogers’ TV was in part defined by its quietude and space. His show was calm, nurturing. Heller sees this and responds in kind. Hanks, too. This is a relatively small picture, granted, but there are still moments in it in which Heller invites you to clear your own mind. It’s a film that will openly invite you to reflect on your own family dynamics. To unpack boxes you might’ve long sealed with brown tape.
This could all read as incredibly cloying, even mawkish, especially when one adds in Heller’s playful choice to incorporate Rogers’ model towns and railways into her transitions between Pittsburgh and New York, but she has some nicely balanced material to work with thanks to screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster. Rogers’ saccharine worldview is complimented by Vogel’s beleaguered pessimism. And, aside from Rogers’ studio (a candy-coloured oasis of escapism), Heller keeps to a relatively muted colour palette. It might be a beautiful day, but its frequently an autumnal one.
Hanks may be grabbing most of the attention here – and even top billing – but it’s a supporting role. Rhys’s Lloyd is the film’s subject. While Rogers deeply affects him, Lloyd has his own choices to make about how he reacts emotionally to the people around him. Rhys does good work in this regard, and he is ably supported by Kelechi Watson, whose fine work here as the supportive spouse will hopefully lead to meatier material in the years to come. Chris Cooper plays Lloyd’s estranged father looking to make right, and he’s Chris Cooper, y’know? A safe bet is a safe bet.
Efforts to pry into the psychology of Rogers, to ask questions of his unending benevolence exist, but they feel a little stifled, a little hamstrung by our very not-knowing. Neville’s aforementioned documentary reaches similar bafflement, and its perhaps an indictment of the tabloid world we live in that we find the purity of men like Rogers hard to accept. As Rogers is a supporting player in the story, ABDITN makes quick work of mostly dodging the question. It is up to Hanks and his measured performance to transmit the man to us. It’s one of his finest, most carefully calibrated screen appearances in some time.
The world is not good right now. I write this in a country that seems to have totally lost its identity and place in the world. Other nations are coming apart or are just on fire. The warmth of Rogers is exceedingly appealing. He – and Heller – provide a simplified, comforting version of the world. It’s a pleasure to visit such a place. And though it may be slight, A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood is about taking something away from small, positive experiences, of keeping a part of that with you, and maybe even passing it on.