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A beautiful day in the neighborhood post
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
★★★☆☆
First run Theater cinema

After the success of Won't You Be My Neighbor?, Morgan Neville’s moving and surprisingly profound 2018 documentary about the life, career, and philosophy of Fred Rogers, it seemed only a matter of time before we’d get a biopic about the pioneering children’s television personality and producer. Happily, the film that’s arrived is not at all the by-the-numbers true-life-story-of-a-great-individual that we might expect, but a surreal docudrama that dramatizes one small but significant chapter near the end of Rogers’ three decades-long run as the host of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on PBS. Fred Rogers is a supporting player is this particular story, and this sideways approach to the man might be the only way a dramatic feature could be made about him. As Neville’s film points out, the man had very few interpersonal or internal conflicts until the end of his life, when he began to question if the television work to which he’d devoted himself had made the significant difference in society he had hoped. We wonder at the conclusion of the documentary how despondent the eternally optimistic Presbyterian minister and loyal Republican voter might have felt had he lived to see the hostile, dysfunctional, and divided state of America today.

But Mr. Rogers’ legacy wasn’t ever going to be about some national movement towards kindness and empathy. It was, and remains, about the one-on-one connections he made with millions of children, both in person and on TV. Fred Rogers had a sincere, positive effect on people of multiple generations by helping them develop their own sense of self-worth. And that gift is what is depicted in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Directed by Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage GirlCan You Ever Forgive Me? and written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster (producers on Amazon’s Transparent, where Heller has served as a director), the movie was inspired by the 1998 Esquire magazine article "Can You Say . . . Hero?" by Tom Junod.  Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster wrote their screenplay—then titled, You Are My Friend—over a decade before Mr. Rogers came flooding back into our collective cultural consciousness by way of the widely popular Won't You Be My Neighbor?

This new, whimsically fictionalized film tells the story of Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a cynical journalist based on Junod, who is assigned by his Esquire editor (Christine Lahti) to profile Rogers for a puff piece. Operating on the assumption that Mr. Rogers is a character Fred Rogers puts on, Lloyd sets out to profile the man behind the mask, but he discovers that the exceedingly kind, patient, and ever-present persona Rogers embodies on TV is not an act at all. Lloyd’s interviews with the kid’s TV host result in him having to explore his own insecurities and burdens, especially those arising from around his family of origin and family of choice.

The filmmakers use the iconography of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood to great effect, framing the movie as if it were an extended, feature-length version of an episode of the program made for adults. The simple cardboard neighborhood from the show’s opening and closing credit sequences is expanded here beyond a little suburb to include cityscapes, not only of Pittsburgh, where the program is produced, but also of New York, where Lloyd and his family live. At one point, Lloyd even gets transported into the show’s Neighborhood of Make-Believe, where he interacts with Rogers’ iconic hand puppets.

The essence of Mr. Rogers comes through in this movie, though not as directly as it did via his TV show or Won't You Be My Neighbor?Heller boldly paces her picture almost as slowly and methodically as an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, complete with lengthy pauses and astonishingly long (for a contemporary film aimed at a mass audience) moments of silence between characters as they ask each other direct questions or sit with uncomfortable feelings.

Watching the movie will remind viewers of a time, not so long ago, when there were truly independent voices in the mass media, working for meaningful, long-term, empirical good rather than short-term partisan goals or mindless distractions. But while Won’t You Be My Neighbor? acknowledged Rogers’ internal doubts and personal feelings of inadequacy, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood offers a more simplistic portrait. It’s a feel-good movie that, like far too much of cinema today, re-creates a comforting, well-remembered past that plays heavily on collective nostalgia. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood commits to this wistful recollection to such an extent that it’s difficult to fathom what those unfamiliar with Mr. Rogers—who passed away in 2003 and whose show left the airwaves in 2001—will make of this picture.

Since the movie operates under the assumption that all its viewers are arriving at least partially acquainted with Mr. Rogers, and since the film gives us such a narrow window into the life of the real man, he is relegated to being a secondary character. Vogel is the protagonist and Rhys (The Edge of Love, BurntThe Post) does all the heavy lifting in the film. As such, despite the big stylistic swings this picture takes, it ends up as little more than another movie about an emotionally repressed white guy who must learn to let go of his fear and anger to become whole. This narrative is not an invalid or unimportant one; it’s just one we’ve seen a lot—in fact there are probably more of this kind of movie than there are by-the-numbers biopics.

Unlike her magnificent début feature, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Heller doesn’t transport us into the world and perspective of a character we’ve rarely seen on screen. And unlike her sophomore effort Can You Ever Forgive Me?, she doesn’t direct a beloved star into a career-best performance. Tom Hanks’ “America’s Dad” persona makes him an obvious choice to play Mr. Rogers, and he captures Rogers’ patient cadence, Pennsylvania accent, and Zen-like temperament. But he does not disappear Streep-like into the role. Part of what made Mr. Rogers so odd, and why many in America—like Junod—were initially distrustful of him, was his nasally monotone voice. Hanks never loses the sonorous vocal qualities that nearly all leading men possess. And, even though he’s donning the famous sweater and sneakers at the point where Rogers was about to enter his final decade of life, Hanks seems much older than the Mr. Rogers of our collective conscious that the movie wants to evoke.

Still, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood puts across its core theme—honesty and respectfulness triumphing over cynicism—with nuance, humor, and a lack of pretension. Much of the resistance viewers may feel watching this film is not unlike the discomfort many had when they first experienced Mr. Rogers, or, indeed, the mistrust of Rogers that Vogel feels for most of the picture. But, like Vogel, most of us will eventually drop our guard and give in to the nearly indisputable life lessons Rogers and this movie have to offer.

Twitter Capsule:
In her third feature, about a cynical journalist profiling the eminently sincere children's TV host Fred Rogers, Heller again succeeds in crafting a nuanced, revelatory movie from difficult to adapt real-life material.  

Directed by Marielle Heller
Produced by Peter Saraf, Youree Henley, Marc Turtletaub, and Leah Holzer

Written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster
Inspired by the Esquire Magazine article "Can You Say ... Hero?" by Tom Junod

With: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Chris Cooper, Susan Kelechi Watson, Maryann Plunkett, Enrico Colantoni, Wendy Makkena, Tammy Blanchard, Noah Harpster, Carmen Cusack, Kelley Davis, and Christine Lahti

Cinematography: Jody Lee Lipes
Editing: Anne McCabe
Music: Nate Heller

Runtime: 119 min
Release Date: 22 November 2019
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1
Color