A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood is a form of cinematic therapy, an earnest yet nuanced take on a very simple message of forgiveness and kindness. Undoubtably, comparisons will be made between this film and last year’s excellent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, and while the two would serve as an interesting double feature, they’re fundamentally different texts. The documentary is a straight telling of Mr. Rogers’s life, and A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood is a means of using Mr. Rogers and his philosophies to help heal someone else. Filmmaker Marielle Heller has been emerging as an exciting talent, and in this film she cleverly uses the format of a Mr. Rogers show to tell a personal relationship study.
Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is a successful, yet mostly pessimistic writer for Esquire, and as his reputation begins to lose him potential interview subjects, he’s assigned a “puff piece” easy gig to interview Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks). Lloyd is struggling with reconnecting with his alcoholic father (Chris Cooper) in the wake of his sister’s wedding, and while he doesn’t appreciated being assigned a piece he believes to be beneath him, he begrudgingly interviews Rogers. As he spends time with this iconic figure of warmth, Lloyd can’t seem to understand how someone can be so genuine, and as he attempts to break down Rogers, it’s Rogers who ends up interviewing Lloyd and helping him through his path to forgiveness.
What’s wonderful about Heller’s direction is that it opens up with a perception of Rogers that is already established; he’s the nicest guy in the world, and Lloyd can’t seem to understand how his offscreen persona can match the one on screen. But while Hanks effuses kindness and warmth in every situation, it’s not about the entirety of Rogers’ existence, and is narrowly focused on the lessons he teaches Lloyd. Lloyd reflects that Rogers seems to be drawn to “broken people” like him, and Lloyd’s realization that Rogers agreement to be interviewed by him in order to help him makes up the core of the film’s emotion. Lloyd ends up revealing more about himself in the questions he asks, his manner of writing, and why he can’t seem to understand the constant drive that Rogers feels to help those in need, and the means of which Heller executes these situations is very creative.
The story is framed around Hanks performing in a real episode of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, and while it’s not quite breaking the fourth wall, it’s hard to not be moved as Rogers speaks directly to the audience (everyone could certainly stand to listen to more of Mr. Rogers!). The set recreation is flawless and I love the use of miniatures and sets similar to the show for the scenes in the “real” story. It’s a testament to how strong the performances are that the film doesn’t bore- a majority of the film is two men talking in rooms, but Rhys and Hanks are so phenomenal that it’s impossible to look away.
The character of Lloyd risks falling into a track of being the generic “cynical lead,” but I think there’s a lot of depth to the way his character is written. Lloyd’s cynicism often comes from insecurity- he’s afraid to fail as a father and this is only increased once his own father returns to his life. Lloyd wants to crack Rogers because he doesn’t seem to understand how someone so perfect can exist, and it’s often fatherhood that the two bond over. Rogers’ wife Joanna scolds Lloyd when he refers to her husband as a “saint,” because nobody is perfect; Rogers isn’t beloved because he doesn’t feel anger, but because of how he chooses to deal with it.
Lloyd isn’t neccessarily cruel toward Rogers or towards his own family, but he has a deep issue with finding a way to speak about his feelings, and it’s forgiveness that Rogers tries to implore him to feel. The film doesn’t simplify how difficult it is for Lloyd to forgive his father for abandoning him, nor does it end with a complete sense of resolution, but Rogers’ message is that there’s always a chance. Chris Cooper has played deadbeat dads in now countless movies (between American Beauty, The Town, and even The Amazing Spider-Man 2 he may be the expert on the subject), and he’s the type of actor who is so expressive that he’s able to elevate what may be a familiar role.
It goes without saying that Hanks is extraordinary- casting America’s most likable actor as one of the most likable people in history seems like genius casting, but Hanks is doing more than an impression. He’s downright synonymous with Rogers at points, and I loved the quiet strength with which he plays the role. There are points where Rogers has to reflect upon hard points in his life and express his pain to Lloyd, yet he’s also able to show a childlike sense of wonderment at the simple joys in his life. I think Rhys is also phenomenal, as it’s easy for him to be unlikeable, but seeing a man who is flawed learn from this iconic figure makes him a suitable audience avatar.
There are a few odd musical cues and at points where side characters feel a little too simplified (Lloyd’s family dynamics are mostly great, but the journalism side of the story feels a bit underdeveloped, particularly his caricature editor played by Christine Lahti), but these are only minor distractions from a film that is thought provoking and takes it’s time. Nobody is perfect, not even Mr. Rogers, and the film seems to conclude that our ability to grow always comes from the ability to ask for help. I don’t think there will ever be a time in which the lessons of Mr. Rogers won’t be relevant, but in this case I appreciate how down to Earth and humanized every character is. Grade: A-