Fame is a four-letter word…what matters is what you do with it.
When Morgan Neville’s phenomenal Won’t You Be My Neighbor? took the world by storm last year, it was because Fred Rogers’ was a story people hadn’t immediately, but very quickly realized they needed. It was a perfectly timed prescription of hope and human potential, detailing one man’s mission to use universal ingredients to help others. And yet, the documentary and Rogers’ philosophy both took on a deeper meaning once it became clear that the children’s television host would often turn those lessons onto his own imperfections.
Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood takes a different approach, showcasing everyone’s favorite neighbor as the carter of unending kindness that most of Rogers’ admirers paint him as today. His trademark, genuine personality is elected as the representative against cynicism in this good feeling versus bad feeling story, embodied here by slightly fictionalized journalist, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys).
An investigative reporter – and not a very nice one at that – Lloyd’s been sent to profile Mister Rogers for an upcoming editorial on American heroes. Originally intended to be a 400-word puff piece, the New Yorker scoffs at the host’s ever-glad demeanor and digs around for any excuse to convert his work into an exposé: his specialty. “Lloyd,” his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) warns after hearing the news of his latest assignment, “please don’t ruin my childhood.”
In both the film and reality, the final product nearly busted a ten thousand-word count. The experience had an uncalculated and immeasurable impact on Tom Junod, the Esquire writer Lloyd’s character is based on, and provided him with one of his greatest companions in Rogers. It’s this friendship that Heller and company have decided to explore, catapulting their bond into an essential and timely conversation about the capabilities of compassion.
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A Beautiful Day could be easily packaged as a “Mister Rogers talks about forgiveness” episode from the Neighborhood archives (complete with period-specific broadcasting practices). Hanks jumpstarts the film as he steps onto the replicated soundstage, singing the show’s iconic theme and introducing Lloyd’s story. Then, transitioning to the Big Apple through a similar set of miniatures, the lesson begins with the disgruntled journalist duking it out with his estranged father (an appropriately ailing Chris Cooper), who he’s never exonerated for leaving his mother at her deathbed.
Lloyd’s irritations follow a traditional arc, and often border on becoming melodramatic. But once Mister Rogers injects himself into Lloyd’s dilemmas, offering him advice and sympathy in the same blunt, yet gentle voice that’s resonated with generations of audiences, the text becomes layered. In commanding tone, Heller’s been handed a tough task – her subject has always been criticized as campy for his persistent positivity – but having proven herself to be among the more empathetic directors working today, her equally understated delivery reaches the ethos of Rogers’ philosophy.
And while the heart of the show is dedicated towards Rhys’ crumpling cynicism, in the end, it belongs to Hanks. The Forrest Gump megastar has reached an idolized, father-figure status in his career and combined with Rogers’ nurturing practices, his presence has the same paralyzing effect as a longed-for reunion.
That becomes especially true in one scene towards the end of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Hanks nabs an exercise Rogers would often prescribe whenever he’d deliver public speeches. While at a Pittsburg diner, he instructs Lloyd to join him in sixty seconds of silence “to remember all the people who loved you into being.” As Heller’s camera glides across the room, breaking the fourth wall and revealing the collection of Rogers’ real companions scattered around the room, the silence on the screen is disregarded by the whimpers in the audience. It’s truly magical.
Any hint of sappiness in the neighborhood is squashed by Hanks’ paralyzingly delightful turn as Mister Rogers in A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood.