‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’

Meow Meow Mr. Rogers Biopic Meow Meow

What a curious idea, to make a movie about a secular saint who doesn’t grow, develop, or change. Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is sideways hagiography, an idealized portrait of idealistic public television legend Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) as told through the eyes of jaded journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys). Don’t expect to learn very much about Mr. Rogers. He’s as opaque at the end of the film as he is at the beginning. It’s like Citizen Kane without rosebud. But that’s a moot point: the film is more interested in proselytizing on his behalf. There’s no great reveal, other than the simple and simply profound fact that goodness is real.


A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Marielle Heller
Written by: Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster
Starring: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper
Running time: 107 min


 

A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood is set in 1998, just a few years before the PBS personality’s death at age 74 from stomach cancer. At that point, his groundbreaking show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood had been on the air for three decades. Esquire Magazine assigns Vogel the task of writing a 400-word profile of Rogers for an issue about heroes. Why him? Rogers had specifically requested the award-winning reporter after having read his hard-hitting investigative pieces.

Lloyd is also the hard-hitting child of Jerry (Chris Cooper), a well-intentioned but compulsively selfish and emotionally maladroit jerk who always seems to enrage his son. They throw punches at Lloyd’s sister’s wedding, which means that Lloyd shows up to interview Rogers with a black eye. And Rogers, his interviewer literally wounded, sees an opportunity to help a soul in need.

So begins a series of encounters between Vogel and the constitutionally unflappable Rogers, who continues his daily work of writing, producing, and starring in a children’s show from his hometown of Pittsburgh. And so begins the cascade of feel-good insights, some pithy, some touching. “Fear is a four-letter word,” he tells Vogel. “There’s always something you can do with the mad that you feel,” he explains to Vogel later on. “I’m grateful for your compassion,” he adds at one point.

Rogers has a preternatural ability to be in the moment, and his propensity for being so present and so focused rattles Vogel. “I just don’t think he’s for real,” Vogel snarls early on. “He’s just the nicest person I’ve ever met.” And he doesn’t mean it as a compliment. “You don’t really like humanity,” Mr. Rogers’ producer tells Vogel.

“Can you say white male privilege? I thought you could.”–Matthew Rhys in A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood

Guess what? Vogel learns to like humanity, his dad, and even himself. All because of Mr. Rogers. The End.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is just that basic, which keeps it from being a very engaging film. But it’s a deeply empathetic movie in ways that are completely foreign to today’s entertainment. And that’s the radical heart of this sweet-but-never-cloying biopic. Why not celebrate the transformative power of decency? Why not revere the search for positive ways to deal with dark feelings?

Undiscussed but impossible to ignore is how people of color in the film really embrace Rogers. He receives warm applause on Arsenio Hall’s talk show. A group of black kids see him on the subway and kick off a theme-song serenade. “Oh, God, please don’t ruin my childhood,” says Vogel’s African-American wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson). Heller’s most subversive, and most compassionate, decision is to explore Vogel’s white-male-privilege disdain.

The people given the most opportunities in life can still be unhappy, and can sometimes become even more miserable. If they reject Rogers’ central tenets of being kind, being thoughtful, and recognizing that everyone deserves respect, it’s probably because they’ve been able to achieve material success in life without them and don’t see their value. Except that that nagging ennui is usually rooted in their absence.

As a kid, I personally never jibed with Mr. Rogers’ TV show. His hokey red cardigan and blue sneakers, his kooky Neighborhood of Make-Believe with puppet denizens like King Friday XIII and Daniel Striped Tiger, and his painfully slow I-see-you! diction was all so eye-rolling. Why did I need this? I had white male privilege! The adult me sees how much I was missing. And how much more room there still is for personal growth. And that’s pretty beautiful.

 

Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. He is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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