A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Review by Hannah Woodhead @goodjobliz

Directed by

Marielle Heller

Starring

Chris Cooper Matthew Rhys Tom Hanks

Anticipation.

Hanks as Mr Rogers seems like peak wholesome content.

Enjoyment.

A sweet, heartfelt little adventure.

In Retrospect.

Charming, although a tad more conventional than Heller’s previous work.

Tom Hanks is perfectly cast as the late Fred Rogers, America’s favourite neighbour.

Is there anyone else on the planet who could play the incomparable Fred Rogers besides Tom Hanks? There’s not much of a physical resemblance, yet the two share something more significant: a place in the hearts of Americans from all walks of life.

Children raised on the television show Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood were taught the value of human kindness and self-expression, as demonstrated so eloquently in Morgan Neville’s 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. He touched the lives of countless individuals, and can be seen as a true force for good in a world of increasing instability.

Hanks, be it as Woody the Cowboy or Josh Baskin or Sully Sullenberger, is a similar sort of specifically-American hero. He gamely joshes around on Saturday Night Live, while maintaining a modest but charming internet presence. He’s benevolent and beloved, just like Rogers.

Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood has been billed as a Fred Rogers biopic, but really it’s about Tom Junod. In 1998, the writer was commissioned by Esquire to write a short profile of Rogers for their ‘Heroes’ issue. After spending time with him, Junod turned in a 10,000 word essay.

In Heller’s fictionalised account of Junod’s meetings with Rogers, Matthew Rhys plays a stand-in named Lloyd Vogel. An investigative journalist by trade, he’s unenthusiastic about the prospect of meeting Rogers, as well as battling his own personal demons following the return of his estranged father Jerry (Chris Cooper, slightly sauced and persistent in the face of his son’s rejections).

Just as Rogers taught countless children the importance of handling emotions in a healthy way, so he teaches the wounded Lloyd, who is furious and heartbroken at the same time. He struggles to process his childhood trauma which is compounded by the fact he has recently become a father himself. Initially he resists Rogers’ attempts to reach out to him.

Though you may not think it from the film’s marketing campaign, Rogers is in fact a supporting player in Lloyd’s story (and Hanks likely a shoo-in for the Supporting Oscar in 2020). Perhaps this is the only way to really make a film about Fred Rogers – by making it about the people whose lives he touched.

As in 2015’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl and 2018’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Heller brings her usual wit and playfulness to proceedings, side-stepping mawkish sentimentality in favour of matter-of-fact pragmatism. It does feel a little lighter in tone, and as cosy as it is the film is less daring than Heller’s previous work. Surely there’s no need to further canonise Fred Rogers – his magic was a lack of fuss, a soft voice and an infinite supply of patience.

His curiosity about the world – but more importantly, the people in it and society at large – feels like it could be the primary inspiration for Hanks’ performance, and rather than overly concerning himself with achieving an uncanny likeness, this is more like a canny reimagining. No one can be Mr Rogers, but at the same time, everyone can. All it takes is a little kindness to yourself, and a lot of kindness towards others.

Published 29 Jan 2020

Tags: Fred Rogers Marielle Heller Tom Hanks

Anticipation.

Hanks as Mr Rogers seems like peak wholesome content.

Enjoyment.

A sweet, heartfelt little adventure.

In Retrospect.

Charming, although a tad more conventional than Heller’s previous work.

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