Directed by: #MarielleHeller
A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood Movie Review
At several points during A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, the third feature from Marielle Heller, I was reminded of the great critic Roger Ebert. In 2000, upon seeing Almost Famous for the first time, he simply declared, “Oh, what a lovely film.” Despite thinking for some time about how best to sum up Heller’s achievements with this film, I believe all I can do is to paraphrase Roger. What a lovely, lovely film this is.
After the critically adored Diary of a Teenage Girl and the Oscar-nominated Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Heller is on a roll, and here has decided to work from a largely true story again. The film’s source is an Esquire profile of the famed American children’s TV presenter Fred Rogers, and at its core tells the story of the thorough kindness and decency that he embodied. This is not, however, a Mister Rogers biopic because, as Heller herself as pointed out, with somebody who seems to represent absolute good there is little opportunity to present a satisfying dramatic arc. There is no journey, no development.
Writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, therefore, have drawn on that famous Esquire piece to primarily tell the story not of its subject, but of its author: the journalist Tom Junod. Junod is recast here as the fictional Lloyd Vogel, an investigative journalist working at Esquire to simultaneously produce award-winning writing and piss people off. As the film’s plot is set in motion, Lloyd’s editor sends him out to write 400 words on Rogers as part of a special edition on ‘heroes’. The writer is initially reluctant as he hates writing ‘puff pieces’ and his in-built distrust senses that Mister Rogers cannot be as nice as he seems.
As Lloyd embarks on his assignment, he visits the presenter on set at Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood, the show in which Rogers would invite his young audience to join him to meet a host of characters, both puppet and human, and discuss more troubling issues that might face them such as death and divorce. All is done with a quiet, relaxed tone that comes across as the TV equivalent of a gentle hug. As Lloyd observes this, he is battling his own demons, most notably a difficult relationship with his father whose at-first unspecified wrongdoing has instilled a keen sense of anger in Lloyd.
With a film that depicts what could have been a fairly basic kindness vs. cynicism dynamic, Heller and her writers duly handle it with care and complexity. Lloyd is not a bad person, not by any stretch of the imagination. What the film hits upon is the desire within many of us to be a Lloyd, not a Fred. Lloyd is a man of integrity, pulling back the curtain on the nastiness of those in power, and he delights in it. He is a ‘good person’ in the firecracker way, giving a ‘fuck you’ to those in the wrong and not looking back. This is in its own way a kind of morality, but it is not the kindly, forgiving Mister Rogers method.
What Rogers teaches Lloyd is largely not the harm he is doing to others, but the harm he is doing to himself. Often, in our wish to prove our own goodness, we wish to be aggressively moral, not just fighting for what we think is right but always fighting against something or someone else. It is a fight that has taken its toll on Lloyd, as seen through his familiar yet subtly executed relationship with his wife and son. To sell the carefully-observed Vogel-Rogers dynamic, and to bring out the complexities in the two men, requires great skill from its stars. Thankfully for Heller she has elicited two wonderful performances from Tom Hanks and Matthew Rhys. I don’t think you need me to tell you who takes which role.
Asking Tom Hanks to play the world’s nicest man seems like cheating, but he delicately brings out the humanity Rogers here. He is so slow, softly-spoken and syrupy-sweet that it takes some getting used to but there is a crucial, subtle sadness behind his eyes. This is never overplayed, but it makes a world of difference to how we view him. One of the film’s key observations comes from Rogers’ wife Joanne who chooses not to think of him as a ‘living saint’ because “that implies that what he is cannot be achieved by others.” Hanks’ greatest achievement with this performance is to make Mister Rogers feel like a real person, whose goodness is the result of a daily battle against the evils of the world and in himself.
Rhys, meanwhile, as the smart yet weary Vogel is fantastic. His emotional journey, using Rogers as the catalyst, runs through anger, disbelief, mocking humour and wonder. He is the real driving force of the film, and the audience surrogate into the frankly bizarre world of unabashed goodness that Rogers represents. Rhys makes his journalist feel lived-in and natural, drawing out the intense feeling in everyday grievances. Where Mister Rogers is an exceptional figure, Lloyd resembles the average person’s struggle to be a good, happy person without letting cynicism get in the way.
With such a rich story to tell, Heller could be forgiven for making a stylistically straight-forward film. For the most part she does play things simply, allowing her actors to shine and pacing their development admirably. There are risks here, however, that largely pay off. There is an extended dream sequence where Lloyd literally experiences the neighbourhood first-hand whilst he is at the height of his obsession with Rogers’ befuddling goodness. Heller employs a neat trick between scenes too, as typical shots of the city are stylised as if it is a part of the neighbourhood, all fuzzy edges and bright colours.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood feels like it takes place in a heightened reality. It has the quality of a fable, imparting wisdom onto its audience with a delicate kindness befitting of Mister Rogers himself. With real, convincing portrayals from Rhys and Hanks, Heller manages to keep the film grounded enough for its message to really resonate. Yet it remains magical enough for us to delight in its sweetness throughout, showing us the possibility of a happier world that does not ignore the darkness, but embraces it with a more powerful light. ’Oh, what a lovely film’ indeed.