Fred Rogers, the beloved children’s TV host of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood who departed our neighborhood for a celestial address in 2003, remains a shockingly relevant figure today. With his calm, unhurried demeanor, he delivered comfort to legions of Gen X and millennial kids as we struggled to understand the world and our own feelings about our place in it. His naturally soothing presence was a stark contrast to the volcanic streams of belligerence we are exposed to daily in 2019, and his preternatural ability to see through all the nonsense and speak directly to our nature’s better angels made him an enduring cultural icon.
Mister Rogers is not the lead character in the off-kilter drama A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, but he is central to the film’s story and to all of its noble aspirations for higher meaning. Very freely adapted from Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire profile piece (“Can You Say… Hero?”), the movie gradually details the surprising relationship that developed between the acerbic writer and the gentle PBS star. Matthew Rhys (The Americans) plays a fictionalized version of Junod named Lloyd Vogel, a journalist acclaimed for his lacerating brand of investigative journalism, and resented by colleagues for his generally caustic attitude. As a lark, his editor (played by Birmingham Seaholm High School graduate Christine Lahti) assigns Vogel to do a quick little write-up on Rogers to accompany a photo shoot, since there’s such an obvious stylistic clash between subject and author. Begrudgingly, Vogel rolls into Pittsburgh’s WQED studios, where Rogers shot his show for 33 years, looking for an angle to knock the saintly figure down a few pegs. It proves an impossible mission: The gentle, endlessly kind soul seen on television is essentially the same as the one offscreen. In his quiet, freakishly nice and earnest way, the interview subject turns the focus back on his interrogator, and begins to break down the deep-seated problems that keep Lloyd’s worldview from being less than sunny.
Tom Hanks effortlessly slips into Rogers’ soft cardigans and canvas sneakers, transmuting the very real good will he's earned as an actor into the genuine warmth pretty much everyone feels for the character he’s playing. While he doesn’t quite impersonate Rogers’ famous singsong speaking voice, he amusingly does dead-on copies of Rogers’ puppet characters like King Friday the 13th. This is a guy that you would gladly entrust with your deepest darkest secrets, and by all accounts he treated every soul he encountered as a unique, innately lovable individual. But that level of presence in the moment, that level of commitment, came at a cost to Rogers — which only those closest to him would ever know, and he shows glimpses of it to Lloyd, as mutual trust slowly begins to erode Vogel’s cynicism.
The writer has his walls up, because of his own very tortured connection with his estranged, playboy father, smoothly played by the always brilliant Chris Cooper. Things are so bad that the two get into a brawl at a wedding, and the acidic aftermath of that conflict taints everything in Lloyd’s life. This fractured relationship serves as a broken mirror to Vogel’s quietly evolving bond with Rogers, and is the key to helping the raging writer process his own roles as a husband and new father.
What could have easily become saccharine glop is instead delivered in unexpected ways by director Marielle Heller. She employs a framing device, where the whole story is presented as an episode of the show, complete with '80s video blur, and quaintly handmade toy models of locations like airports, hospitals, and Manhattan, which adds a twinge of surrealism to the whole thing. It may feel a bit like Charlie Kaufman-lite, but like the profoundly decent man it celebrates, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood sneaks up on you, and patiently erases your lingering doubts about it. This is not a perfect film, but it’s a good one, and it’s OK being just exactly what it was meant to be.
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