“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” Distributed by Sony Pictures Releasing, 107 Minutes, Rated PG, Released November 22, 2019:
Surprisingly, one of the most eagerly anticipated motion pictures this year is not an intergalactic science fiction shoot ‘em up or a lurid comic book-based all-star superhero spectacular, but a dramatic profile of a quiet, gentle, self-effacing, and genuinely kind man--a legendary children’s entertainer who, in his own words, devoted his life “to the broadcasting of grace through the land.”
In “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) by all appearances is living The American Dream, newly married with an infant son, working as a successful writer for a major national periodical. But in reality, Vogel is a man consumed with emotional anguish. Deserted as a boy by his irresponsible father and left to care for his dying mother, Vogel as an adult is being slowly devoured by a simmering rage, a festering sense of emotional discontent which is affecting even his job as an investigative reporter for Esquire magazine.
When the magazine devotes an issue to the subject of heroes, Vogel’s editor sends him to Pittsburgh to write a 400-word profile of children’s television personality Mister Rogers. The assignment is meant to be as much a rest for the journalist as an authentic professional mission: Such is Vogel’s recent journalistic reputation that out of twenty personalities to be profiled in the magazine’s "Heroes" issue, Rogers is the only one who agreed to interact with him, or sit for an interview.
Vogel arrives at Pittsburgh’s WQED studio to find Mister Rogers interrupting filming of his television show to interact with a disabled child. And although he’s initially impressed with Rogers’ obvious natural empathy and rapport with the child, Vogel is grimly determined to prove that the man’s legendary childlike persona is an act, a character he plays as a means of boosting the show's appeal. But as Rogers and the hardened journalist become friends over the course of the following days, Vogel instead finds to his surprise that Rogers is precisely who he purports to be...and that his own rage at life is slowly dissolving.
For “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” director Marielle Heller abandons traditional narrative structure, and uses as a template for her movie the prototype of a typical episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” with Fred Rogers occupying more or less the same role as the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town.” Technically, Mister Rogers isn’t even the picture’s main character--the movie is actually the story of the journalist’s emotional redemption through his friendship and interactions with Rogers. As director Heller explains, “Fred Rogers was too advanced in his emotional evolution to be (the picture’s) protagonist.”
Adapted by “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” screenwriters Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue from journalist Tom Junod’s anecdotal November 1998 Esquire magazine article “Can You Say...Hero?” Heller’s picture is more a fictionalized portrait of the famed children’s television personality than a traditional motion picture biography. And the filmmaker takes an artistic gamble by in effect breaking the fourth wall periodically, and inviting the viewer to participate in the onscreen activities. In that way, the picture is literally a sort of “Through the Looking Glass”...for both the journalist onscreen and the viewer in the audience.
Filmmaker Heller’s narrative gamble pays off, thanks largely to the powerful and evocative performance by actor Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers. His two Academy Awards prove that Tom Hanks is a terrific actor, but in a way the performer’s turn as the beloved children’s show personality might not be acting, or an imitation--which likely would’ve been disastrous--or even, by strict definition, a performance. By all appearances, Tom Hanks the actor instead seems to be channeling Mister Rogers’ very spirit.
Employing little more elaborate than a general approximation of Rogers' distinctive voice--"the sly voice," Tom Junod wrote in his 1998 Esquire article, "that sounds adult to the ears of a child and childish to the ears of an adult"--Hanks captures the essence of the man to an extent that when we hear the voice of the real Mister Rogers over the film’s closing credits we might well catch ourselves thinking, “No, no, no, that guy’s getting it all wrong.”
"A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" surprisingly turns out to be a smart, challenging picture--challenging not in a way to, God forbid, exploit the wave of public sentiment many of us still feel for Mister Rogers since his 2003 death, or inspired by the popularity of Morgan Neville’s superb 2018 documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Heller's picture instead challenges us to intimacy--to be kind, to love not only our friends and family members, but everyone we encounter, our neighbors as well as ourselves. And, yes, to love them, and ourselves, even when we’re not at our most lovable.
The film’s challenge to the audience is depicted most effectively during a scene in which Rogers and the journalist are sharing lunch in a Chinese restaurant. When Rogers’ gentle probing into the journalist’s past, and the source of his rage, threatens to boil over into an emotional confrontation, Hanks’ Rogers quietly deflects the writer’s resentment by asking him to participate in an exercise--to take a moment to remember “all the people who’ve loved us into being.” And with that simple request, Rogers pauses, gazing silently at the journalist.
But then, as the conflicted writer puts aside his emotions to comply with the unusual request, Hanks as Rogers during the brief silence slowly turns his eyes toward the camera--and directly toward the audience, implicitly inviting, and even challenging, the viewer to join the journalist in the exercise onscreen. It’s an extremely powerful moment in a quietly powerful picture...as well as a genuine Moment of Truth: The scene is taken almost verbatim from the real Rogers’ acceptance speech in 1997, when he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, a moment memorably broadcast live on national television.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” does occasionally grow indulgent with its subject, relying on the audience’s reminiscences of Rogers’ gentle spirit to carry it through some of its more dramatically shaky moments. At one point the journalist, overwhelmed by his own negativity, collapses into a faint during a taping of the children’s show and regains consciousness not in a hospital or medical clinic but in the Rogers’ home. And later, during a trip to the apartment Rogers keeps in New York, the writer is treated to an impromptu puppet show in which the familiar characters from the Land of Make Believe invite him to get in touch with his feelings. Honestly, in another film such scenes would convey vastly divergent signals.
But in the end, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” delivers us to where we ultimately think it will...or rather to where we want to go, and hope and even pray the movie might take us. This is a quietly dynamic motion picture regardless of the viewer’s age, demographic, or cultural distinction, filled with satisfying vignettes and scenes of heartwarming poignancy, and offering a significant and affecting message about understanding, acceptance, human dignity, and caring. But, hey...that's what neighbors are for.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is rated PG for some strong thematic material, brief physical violence, and some language concerns.