A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a profoundly beautiful movie inside and out. I’m not sure I can put into words exactly why I feel this way though. Perhaps it is Marielle Heller’s and Fred Roger’s (Tom Hanks), optimistic insistence that while we may be broken-hearted; we are not broken.
Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is a journalist known for his biting interview style. He is widely known and well respected but not much liked. When the magazine he works for, Esquire, decides to run a series of articles about heroes only one person would agree to talk to Lloyd, Fred Rogers.
Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is about Vogel’s realization that the anger which drives him is in danger of consuming him. With a quiet and sublime touch, Heller allows us to witness a host of a kid’s television show on public access television save another human being with love and compassion. By itself, this would make for enraptured viewing.
The script by Micha Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster structures the story in familiar artifice of a Mister Rogers episode. The exterior shots are largely model sets like the ones from the old television show. The movie even begins with the wonderfully familiar opening of that infamous show.
Hanks’ Rogers sings the theme song, changes from his jacket to a cardigan and takes off his loafers and puts on tennis shoes. When Mister McFeely the mailman comes by with a magazine with his interview Rogers goes to the Picture Picture to show us how magazines are made. We are thrust into the world of Fred Rogers and the rest of the movie depends on whether you go with it or not.
Some won’t, they will decry it as “kitschy” or too “saccharine”. But Heller’s touch is so light and unforced that as A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood builds to a scene so bizarre and almost too surreal she pulls it off with a sublime warmth. Another director would have been too hammy or gone too far. But Heller puts us in Lloyd’s shoes so completely that when his realization happens it’s as if it’s happening to us as well.
It should come as no surprise to anyone but Hanks disappears into the role of Fred Rogers. An almost impossible task considering how many of us grew up with him and have his indelible image and voice in our memories. Hanks manages to thread a needle of a performance so his Rogers is neither mimicry nor unrecognizable. It is an abstract form with ticks and a psyche that we can recognize and which Hanks all but disappears into for moments at a time.
A perfect illustration of this is a scene between Mister Rogers and Lloyd with puppets. Lloyd is trying to interview a man who listens so well and is so concerned with the world around him it’s seemingly impossible to get a simple answer. While Rogers shows Loyd his familiar puppets Lloyd succeeds in tossing a question which floors Fred. “It couldn’t have been easy having Mister Rogers as a father.”
Rogers isn’t taken aback though. He takes Lloyd’s statement in and reflects on it. Hanks’ delivery of the line, “Thank you for giving me that perspective,” is marvelous because like the performance itself it lacks any and all vanity.
Lloyd’s own father, Jerry (Chris Cooper) has come back into his life after years of being absent. His father left his mother and he (and his sister) while she was dying of cancer and Lloyd understandably has never quite forgiven him. Those of you rolling your eyes at the reveal that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is about father issues would be forgiven. But I’ve seen a lot of movies about father issues but I’ve rarely seen one as deft and understanding as Heller’s.
I speak as a man who has his own father issues. I buried my father over a decade ago. Picked out the plot, arranged the funeral, attended the funeral and I’ll be hanged if I could tell you where he’s buried. I have my reasons for the anger I hold onto for my father but watching A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood I realized how silly it was. He’s dead and I am not and the anger isn’t doing any of us any good.
Because while Heller’s movie about Mister Rogers may seem to be about Daddy issues it’s actually about something much more serious and complex. It’s about the trying and oftentimes draining experience of being alive and present in the ever-evolving world around us. Often we view Mister Rogers as a saint. Lloyd even tells Mister Rogers’ wife Joanne, played by Maryann Plunkett, “How does it feel to be married to a modern-day Saint?”
“I don’t like that word. It makes him seem perfect and what he does unattainable. He’s not perfect Mr. Vogel.” Heller is trying to guide us to the realization that Fred Rogers need not be one in a million.
Jody Lee Lipes bathes A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood with exuberant warmth. Moments such as when Lloyd envisions himself into the world of make-believe work because of Lipes and Heller’s dedication to what I can only call the Tao or Rogers. The imagery is straightforward and though it may be surreal it is never artificial. By which I mean they are sincere in their love and their belief in Rogers which translates into a belief that Lloyd, and by extension all of us, are worthy of love.
Heller hasn’t made a biopic about Fred Rogers with A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. No, instead she has made a movie encapsulating his ethos. In so doing she has made something much more than a biopic about a man. She has made a testament to his beliefs.