A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 49 min.

Release Date: November 22nd, 2019 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Marielle Heller Actors: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Chris Cooper, Susan Kelechi Watson, Maryann Plunkett, Enrico Colantoni, Wendy Makkena, Tammy Blanchard, Christine Lahti

 


 

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ostalgic theme music familiarizes audiences with the introduction of the “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” show, starring a lookalike Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks), complete with red sweater, tie, tennis shoes, gentle voice, and calming demeanor. Yet Hanks doesn’t exactly mimic the real Rogers, save for a few mannerisms and his unshakeable friendliness; he merely creates a comparable aura – a passing resemblance. Nevertheless, it’s effective, despite the fact that viewers will surely never get lost in the performance. It’s always obvious that Hanks is playing a part (though he’s thoroughly watchable in every scene).

Curiously, the movie isn’t based solely around Rogers. Soon, he introduces the name and face of a compete stranger: investigative journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), who is about to receive a 1998 accolade at the National Magazine Awards (despite being inspired by a true story, Vogel isn’t a real person). And, just because the city and background locations are depicted as toy sets straight from the Mister Rogers television show doesn’t mean that Vogel’s world is immediately comparable. The next day, Lloyd and his wife, public interest attorney Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), plan a trip to his sister Lorraine’s (Tammy Blanchard) wedding in New Jersey, where their father, Jerry (Chris Cooper), will be in attendance – something that irritates Lloyd, though not enough to cancel completely. Sure enough, once the event is underway, Jerry creates an awkward confrontation with his estranged son, resulting in the trading of punches.

“Have you ever felt the way Lloyd does?” Transitioning back to Rogers’ cozy set, where Mr. McFeely (Daniel Krell) delivers the mail and shows an instructional video on how a magazine is made, a connection soon surfaces between the beloved children’s show host and the acerbic scribe. Vogel is assigned to whip up a 400-word puff piece profile for an inspirational people series – and Rogers is the only one willing to be interviewed by the notoriously critical Esquire Magazine writer. “I love him!” insists Andrea.

Problematically, misanthropic Lloyd isn’t all that sympathetic – nor is he even likable. At least he offers a stark contrast to the perpetually soft-spoken, charitable, wise Rogers. At the beginning, however, this contradiction mostly serves to create a desire to see more of Hanks and less of Rhys. As Vogel is drawn into more than just a hasty write-up, fascinated by the seemingly out-of-place and out-of-time worldview of an almost impossibly nice man, he finds himself wanting to change his own behavior – and perhaps reconnect with his father. “I just don’t know if he’s for real.”

During behind-the-scenes moments, it appears as if there is no onscreen persona – Mr. Rogers is the same whether in front of the camera or in person, conversing casually and honestly. This, of course, is quite absorbing, because his image is virtually mythical; any attempt to dig deeper into the inner workings of the saintly being – to expose faults and flaws – is terribly amusing. Once again, however, the probative exposé only pushes Vogel’s involvement further into triviality; everything Rogers says is therapeutic and revelatory, while Lloyd dwells on his angst and acrimony. It’s a curious framing device, as if Rogers’ impact on others wasn’t enough of a subject to build a story around. A petty, disagreeable journalist doesn’t seem necessary, even if he’s the conflicted soul in need of fixing or healing through Rogers’ spiritual guidance.

Fortunately, there’s plenty of humor in the scenarios and interactions as Vogel’s tale parallels many of the themes discussed on Rogers’ show (a dream/nightmare sequence integrated onto the program’s stage is admittedly clever). Yet one can’t help but to wonder why Fred isn’t more of a star, always relegated to a supporting role to Lloyd’s self-destructing familial ordeals. By the end, as Vogel starts to deal with his feelings and repair relationships – to the point that Rogers would be quite proud – the film resembles something disappointingly ordinary; Lloyd’s story is too plain and unaffecting (viewers don’t even get to see or here choice segments from the eventual article) to measure up to what could have been an insightful, emotional journey chronicling one of television’s most revered and respected legends.

– Mike Massie

  • 4/10