A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood
Tom Hanks is pitch-perfect as US children’s television host Mr Rogers in this thoughtful, full-hearted and charming drama.
January 23, 2020
Fred Rogers never made a splash in Australia. But watching A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, it's easy to see why the ordained Presbyterian minister turned children's television host is so beloved in the US, even 17 years after his death — and why adults who grew up watching Mister Rogers' Neighbourhood still hold him in such high regard. This thoughtful, full-hearted film doesn't merely tell viewers that Rogers was universally adored, or show the widespread devotion among his fans. As she proved in both The Diary of a Teenage Girl and Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Marielle Heller is far too soulful and observant a filmmaker for such a blunt approach. Rather, in a sensitive and astute manner reminiscent of Rogers himself, this delightful movie explores his appeal by examining his impact on one reluctant and cynical man.
If you're a newcomer to Rogers, or you're jaded or skeptical by nature, consider Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) your on-screen surrogate. A writer for Esquire in 1998, he's the fictional stand-in for journalist Tom Junod, whose article 'Can You Say ... Hero?' inspired the film. Known for hard-hitting reporting, Vogel is taken aback when he's assigned to profile Rogers. He's also nowhere near as enamoured with his subject as everyone else, including his starstruck wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson). Indeed, he's still hesitant when Rogers (Tom Hanks) engages in a generous chat on the phone and appears genuinely interested in getting to know him.
Taking its cues from Rogers' puppet-filled TV show in inventive ways, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood begins by recreating Mister Rogers' Neighbourhood's opening. To the sounds of a gentle theme sung by Rogers, a model town fills the screen, before cutting to the show's star arriving home, popping on his famous red cardigan, swapping his dress shoes for sneakers and addressing the camera. Purposefully affable and inviting when watched by kids on weekdays for 33 years, it remains just as cosy here. To segue into the bulk of the film, Hanks' pitch-perfect version of Rogers says that he's going to tell a story about his hurt friend Lloyd — and while that might seem like cutesy gimmickry, it works perfectly in Heller's hands. With screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil), she understands that Rogers left such a lasting imprint on so many people because he made kids feel like he really saw them. Accordingly, treating Vogel in the same way isn't just a creative flourish — it's essential.
The same idea applies to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood's audience, who the film never forgets. This movie is well aware that viewers are experiencing the famed figure through Vogel's eyes — and it wants you to feel like you're in his shoes, being seen, welcomed and accepted by the kindly host as well. A new father struggling with issues with his own long-absent dad (Chris Cooper) that stem back to childhood, Vogel's backstory assists. While somewhat generic, it's also immensely relatable. Everyone has pain from the past they haven't fully processed, which was Rogers' whole remit. His show helped kids express their emotions and personalities in healthy ways, and tackle topics as dark as death, divorce and war. Even though Vogel is much, much older, it's a role Rogers is still eager to play for his new friend.
Conveying that compassion, grace and sincerity is a task only Hanks could've mastered. It's a case of getting a beloved, benevolent icon to play just that — although Hanks ensures that Rogers is a person rather than a shining picture of perfection. This isn't a warts-and-all tell-all and, as 2018 documentary Won't You Be My Neighbour? demonstrated, that film will never exist. Instead, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood remembers a man who considered himself ordinary while having an extraordinary effect on others. You could say the same about Hanks, which is what makes his casting so sublime. His is a superb, deservedly Oscar-nominated performance that's never an act of simple mimicry, but that he's as revered — and has been a reliable screen presence for decades, too — is never forgotten.
Amidst cardboard backdrops recreating Mister Rogers' Neighbourhood, talking puppets and scenes of Rogers making adults wait so he can spend more time with his child fans, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood doesn't completely or even primarily belong to Rogers. His influence looms large, but this is really Vogel's story — and that makes the film all the better. Rhys finds his character's world-weary centre, then allows it to slowly crumble as his bond with Rogers grows. In the process, the movie mirrors the way the TV host found a place in millions of children's hearts, and cracks the cloak of cynicism hanging over some of its own viewers, too. It's easy to think that a feature like this will be too sappy, kitschy or hokey, just as Vogel thought about Rogers — but a man brimming with empathy and this charmingly made movie about his impact are both the perfect antidotes to distrust and disillusionment.
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