A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD (2019) is a curious movie, and as much I like Mister Rogers, and the performances in this film, I’m not sure it entirely worked for me.
Check that. It did work for me. Just not as smoothly as I expected.
The film tells the story of a magazine journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) who’s earned the reputation of being a cynic and writing unflattering pieces on the people he interviews. As a result, his editor assigns him to write a brief piece on TV’s Mister Rogers (Tom Hanks) who as it turns out is the only subject they reached out to who agreed to be interviewed by Lloyd.
As Lloyd interviews Rogers, he’s struck by the man’s consistent sincerity and caring, so much so that he doesn’t believe it, and he sets his sights on trying to prove that Rogers isn’t the real deal. This mission doesn’t last long. Instead, Rogers flips the agenda, and it’s Lloyd who’s revealing his past, his innermost hurt dealing with his relationship with his father Jerry (Chris Cooper) who left his family when Lloyd was a boy, leaving him and his sister to care for their dying mother. In effect, Rogers provides all the information Lloyd needs for his interview not by answering questions, but by asking them, and by doing the things he’s known for doing. It takes Lloyd a while to pick up on this, but when he does, he realizes the truth about Rogers, and he does so because in the course of their interviews, Rogers changes Lloyd’s life.
A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD tells a serious story, but it does not play out like a standard drama or biography. Instead, the entire film is framed as if it’s an episode of Fred Rogers’ series MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD. Indeed, it opens just like the show does, with Rogers entering the interior of his TV home, and as he explains to his audience his prop for the day, Picture Picture, he reveals a photo of Lloyd and begins to tell Lloyd’s story. And the film unfolds from there.
As much as I appreciated the originality of this style, sometimes the line was blurred between fantasy and reality. Like when later in the film Lloyd finds himself on the show, reduced to the size of one of the puppets. Clearly, this is a dream Lloyd is having, right? Then again, the movie is framed like the show, so—. Thought-provoking to be sure, but also simply flat-out odd. Which is what I meant at the outset that I’m not sure it entirely worked.
Some moments do work. Like the scene at the diner, where Rogers asks Lloyd to sit with him in silence for one minute, to pray with him for those in need, and as he does this, the patrons in the diner notice and also stop talking. And then Rogers looks right at the camera, and the shot holds— we’re talking sixty seconds in real-time, folks— and the implication is clear: he’s looking at the people in the theater, the point being that they should be doing the same. Again, supporting the notion that A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD is like one big Mister Rogers episode for adults.
And then there’s the ending. Earlier in the film, Lloyd asks Rogers how he handles the pressure of being Mister Rogers, and Rogers doesn’t answer directly. Instead, he speaks of the different ways people can handle pressure, and one of the ways he mentions is pounding the piano keys on low notes really loudly, and he demonstrates this to Lloyd by pretending to do so right there. He doesn’t directly answer the question or say that he himself is stressed, which frustrates Lloyd in the interview. But later, as the film ends, and Rogers’ work is done, and Lloyd has benefitted from Rogers’ intervention, and the final shot of the show is wrapped, Rogers says farewell to his crew, but he remains on set until everyone is gone. In the silence of the empty set, he sits at a piano and pounds those low keys. As he said earlier in the movie, he’s human, and not a saint.
Tom Hanks nails his performance as Mister Rogers. He captures Rogers’ mannerisms and persona to a tee, and there are times when he’s a perfect match. However, even an actor with Hanks’ superior talent has his work cut out for him because Rogers is such an iconic figure that it was rare that I ever truly felt I was watching Rogers on-screen. Instead, I was aware that it was Hanks playing Rogers. I don’t think this is a flaw on Hanks’ part. Rogers is such a genuine presence that’s it’s difficult to see anyone else but him saying and doing the things he said and did.
Matthew Rhys is excellent as Lloyd Vogel, and he delivers the most effective performance in the movie. Of course, in fairness to Tom Hanks, Hanks has the tougher job here, playing Fred Rogers. Nonetheless, Rhys perfectly captures Lloyd’s pain and cynicism. In fact, throughout the movie, I related mostly to Lloyd, who in spite of his biting personality comes off as a real person throughout, so when he’s shaking his head about Rogers’ upbeat and offbeat shtick, he seems like the real person and Rogers the oddball. And yet Rogers’ work is a process, and so as the story goes on, and Lloyd realizes this, he and the audience as well, is won over and understands that Rogers may be an oddball, but he’s the real deal. Rhys captures Lloyd’s journey and transformation perfectly.
Chris Cooper has been one of my favorite actors for years. He’s good in nearly everything he’s in. Probably my all time favorite Cooper role is when he played Jake Gyllenhaal’s father in OCTOBER SKY (1999). He’s back playing another troubled dad here as Lloyd’s father Jerry who spent his life being a jerk and now as he’s dying he desperately wants his son’s forgiveness but can’t seem to get it. He’s got one of the best moments in the film when he laments that it’s only as he is dying that he’s figured out how to live. Cooper nails the role.
I also really enjoyed Susan Kelechi Watson as Lloyd’s wife Andrea. She gets one of the best lines in the movie when Rogers calls them on the phone and refers to her by name, and as she hands the phone to Lloyd says in a starstruck tone, “Mister Rogers knows my name!”
Director Marielle Heller makes the bold decision to film this story like an episode of the iconic children’s show, and for the most part, this works. That being said, the parts that work best really are Lloyd’s moments, which are removed from the show, so, in a strange way, while it’s a clever decision, I’m not sure it completely helps this story. The argument can be made that it would have worked even better with a straight dramatic construct.
The screenplay by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster is based on the true story of the real-life friendship between journalist Tom Junod and Fred Rogers. It does what it sets out to do, in that we see the power of Mister Rogers through his actions and the effect they have on Lloyd Vogel.
I liked A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD well enough, but as a fan of Mister Rogers, I did enjoy last year’s documentary WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? (2018) more.
A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD features superior acting and reveals the potency of Mister Rogers’ message in a drama that unfolds like an episode of his iconic TV show. It’s definitely worth a look, even with a style that sometimes gets in the way of the story it’s trying to tell.
Books by Michael Arruda:
New in 2019! DARK CORNERS, Michael Arruda’s second short story collection, contains ten tales of horror, six reprints and four stories original to this collection.
Waiting for you in Dark Corners are tales of vampires, monsters, werewolves, demonic circus animals, and eternal darkness. Be prepared to be both frightened and entertained. You never know what you will find lurking in dark corners.
TIME FRAME, science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.
How far would you go to save your family? Would you change the course of time? That’s the decision facing Adam Cabral in this mind-bending science fiction adventure by Michael Arruda.
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.
Michael Arruda reviews horror movies throughout history, from the silent classics of the 1920s, Universal horror from the 1930s-40s, Hammer Films of the 1950s-70s, all the way through the instant classics of today. If you like to read about horror movies, this is the book for you!
FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, first short story collection by Michael Arruda.
Michael Arruda’s first short story collection, featuring a wraparound story which links all the tales together, asks the question: can you have a relationship when your partner is surrounded by the supernatural? If you thought normal relationships were difficult, wait to you read about what the folks in these stories have to deal with. For the love of horror!