“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” Movie Review


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     Bringing iconic figures back to life in a film has always been a difficult task.  There are so many expectations in the way the character will be presented, as well as the perceptions of the person that can also bring forth a challenge when there are controversial aspects of their life which need to be addressed.  Fortunately for the late Fred Rogers, the long time host of the beloved children’s program “Mister Rogers Neighborhood”, both his public persona and his television character are one in the same and generally viewed as someone who made an enormous educational contribution to those of us who tuned in each week for our entire childhoods.  The show ran for thirty one seasons between 1968 and 2001, but few really understand what Fred Rogers was like outside of the television set.  A notion that works nicely within the set up for director Marielle Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”, featuring Tom Hanks in the role of Mister Rogers.

     And while the film serves as a nostalgic piece of inspirational holiday pie, this true story (the film is inspired by the friendship between Fred Rogers and journalist Tom Junod) focuses on another yarn entirely, utilizing Fred Rogers’ show as a sort of lead in where the real life version of him does what I would imagine he did regularly.  Help people in need by listening to them and understanding their feelings and unique point of view.  Taking place in the late 1990s, we meet Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a journalist with Esquire magazine known for his hard hitting and ofter demeaning reporting style, who also suffers from a number of deep rooted family issues he can’t seem to leave in the past.  When Lloyd is summoned into his editor’s office and is assigned to interview and profile Fred Rogers, his initial reaction is that of someone who sees himself above this kind of “puff piece” as he calls it.

     In an early sequence, we see Lloyd and his wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), attending his sister’s wedding as his estranged father, Jerry (Chris Cooper), shows up unexpectedly to walk his daughter down the aisle.  It’s a moment that should be special and shared by the entire family, but Lloyd’s feelings toward his father instantly get in the way, leading to a violent altercation right on the heels of his scheduled interview with Fred.  That interview, which starts with a series of standard questions, leads to Fred asking Lloyd several questions of his own.  It’s as if Fred has an uncanny ability to sense the pain in a person and feels it is his calling to not only get it out, but also deal with it as well.  

     Lloyd enters these situations with an already well formed opinion as to who he expects Fred Rogers to be.  Remember, he views the assignment as being beneath him and certainly looks at Fred as nothing more than a children’s show host who has no business digging into his personal life.  To say the least, Lloyd is skeptical from the beginning, as Fred, played to perfection in another Oscar worthy performance by Hanks, brings forth an undeniable calm to the proceedings even when Lloyd becomes agitated to the point of walking out of the room.  But as Lloyd continues to view Fred at work on the set and behind the scenes, he realizes there is much more to the story than he originally thought.  All the while, he also begins taking the necessary steps to resolve his own conflicts.

     The screenplay, written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, uniquely frames the story within an episode of the show which opens with the well known entrance of the title character as he removes his blazer and dress shoes in favor of a comfortable zip up sweater and tennis shoes while singing the familiar tune that gives the film its namesake.  Soon, Mister Rogers is showing the audience a picture board where each photo is concealed by a door.  When he opens one of them, Lloyd’s face is revealed with a picture that indicates he is not having his best day.  Fred looks at the camera and asks his viewers “I wonder what Lloyd is feeling in that picture?”.  And that right there is the key to his magic.  His entire real life persona was built around the understanding and caring about other people’s feelings, starting with that of the children who watched and adored his show.  It is talked about in the film, but if you watched “Mister Rogers” when you were young, than you already know he covered some weighty topics, including death, divorce, bullying, and many other subjects parents are often uncomfortable talking about with their kids.

     All of this is brought to the screen with Heller’s well thought out compositions as each scene brings forth the necessary emotional heft the audience needs in order to gain a full understanding of these characters.  Perhaps the most intriguing sequence she pulls off is one where Fred Rogers seemingly breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience, not as Mister Rogers, but as Fred himself.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard a movie theater as quiet as I did during that scene.  You could hear a pin drop.  And the message that breaks through the madness of a decades long family squabble could not have been more clear, as we see these characters put bad blood behind them and move forward for each other.  What is conveyed by the story is a strong indication of who this man was and what he stood for, exemplifying a brand of compassion and kindness of which we certainly need more of in a world whose values  and respect for one another seems to be disintegrating with each passing day.  GRADE: A