A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

 

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Marielle Heller’s semi-portrait of a beloved American institution benefits enormously from the performance of a beloved American institution.

 

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood  

Skin deep: Matthew Rhys and Tom Hanks

 

There is more than a tinge of irony to the title A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Based on a 1998 article in Esquire magazine called Can You Say…Hero?, the film is ostensibly a portrait of its author Tom Junod. But the screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster have turned Junod into Lloyd Vogel and invented a whole new back story, while attempting to keep the essence of the original feature. Here, Lloyd – played by the Welsh actor Matthew Rhys (with an impeccable American accent) – is undergoing an existential crisis. Likewise, Marielle Heller’s film, too, is existential and draws its subdued, placid tone from the bizarre children’s TV series Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, which ran from 1968 to 2001. The titular hero of Junod’s profile, then, is not himself, but Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks), the presenter of the TV show, who was a national institution in the US. A man who could neither sing in tune nor write a decent poem to save his life, Rogers did both on his programme and endeared himself to generations, while he tackled such subjects as death, divorce, war and missing children.

 

A hard-nosed reporter known for his uncompromising profiles, Tom Junod/Lloyd Vogel is bewildered when he’s ordered to write a short puff piece on the presenter by his editor, Ellen (Christine Lahti). As horrified as he is, his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), exclaims, “Oh God, Lloyd, please don’t ruin my childhood.” But Lloyd perseveres, takes the assignment and at one point asks Mrs Rogers (Maryann Plunkett), “what’s it like to be married to a living saint?”, a question she endures with well-practiced forbearance. Of course, Fred Rogers was no saint, but saintly enough to thwart Lloyd’s ingrained cynicism.

 

Dark currents run beneath the whimsy of this curious, dream-like and fantastical autobiography dressed up as investigative profile. Lloyd is a tortured man, whose pit of insecurity is excavated with the re-emergence of his father, Jerry (Chris Cooper), who had no idea that Lloyd had a baby or even a wife of eight years. At the wedding of Lloyd’s sister, their old differences are rekindled, resulting in a punch-up that leaves Lloyd with a split nose. But even as Jerry strives to make amends, Lloyd can never forgive him for abandoning his mother and descends into self-pity. All of which, incidentally, is a fiction injected into this particular adaptation, but where Fred Rogers’ creed of forgiveness becomes a useful contrivance.

 

The cosy, laidback pacing of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood may have worked within the confines of a 28-minute format – before ADHD became popular – but proves soporific for a full-length feature. Yet whenever Tom Hanks is on screen – sounding like a meditative Forrest Gump on Diazepam – the film casts an otherworldly spell. Films about iconic beings interacting with everyday folk are usually good value (think Notting Hill and A Star is Born), and there are some choice moments here (Andrea: “Mr Rogers knows my name!”). But A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood suffers largely from a lack of conviction. It’s hard to believe in the stereotypical dynamic of the Vogel family, in spite of worthy performances from Cooper, Watson and Rhys. Morgan Neville’s 2018 documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor? on Fred Rogers was a fascinating thing, even though it fell short of illuminating Mr Rogers’ private life. There’s not much more to go on here, although there’s a lovely moment when Lloyd catches Fred and Joanne Rogers playing a rousing duet on matching pianos (something that the couple really did). But that’s another movie. The new film certainly captures the spirit of Mr Rogers’ universe – the transitional shots are played out in a make-believe Toyland of model streets and skyscrapers – and merely whets the appetite for a full-out biography of this extraordinary cultural figure. And Tom Hanks should play him.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper, Christine Lahti, Maryann Plunkett, Enrico Colantoni, Jessica Hecht, Wendy Makkena, Carmen Cusack, Noah Harpster, Tammy Blanchard, Maddie Corman.

 

Dir Marielle Heller, Pro Youree Henley, Peter Saraf, Marc Turtletaub and Leah Holzer, Screenplay Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, Ph Jody Lee Lipes, Pro Des Jade Healy, Ed Anne McCabe, Music Nate Heller, Costumes Arjun Bhasin.

 

TriStar Pictures/Tencent Pictures/Big Beach-Sony Pictures.

108 mins. USA/China. 2019. Rel: 31 January 2020. Cert. PG.