“To die is human and anything human is mentionable. Anything mentionable is manageable.”– Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers
By Cain Dennis
I saw “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” shortly after its late November release and I went into this film with solidly set expectations of what I thought that this movie was going to be. I expected a passable, heartwarming, family-focused film with a great performance from Tom Hanks as the iconic Mr. Rogers. I realized within the first scene of this movie that what I was getting was going to be a much more interesting and even darker story than what I was expecting and the movie is all the better for it. The opening scene of the film frames it nearly as an episode of Mr. Rogers’ television show, hosted by Tom Hanks who quickly falls into the role and really sells it as he presents us with a piece of jarring, surreal imagery. We are even shifted into the program’s original 4:3 aspect ratio when we are seeing scenes from “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” within the movie.
Matthew Rhys stars as Lloyd Vogel, a journalist tasked with profiling Mr. Rogers for a series about heroes. Vogel has a knack for writing hit pieces on celebrities and popular figures, and as his boss at Esquire Magazine points out, Fred Rogers was the only subject willing to be interviewed by Vogel. Rhys plays the broken, apathetic journalist very well, and seeing the impact that Hanks’ Mr. Rogers has on him as they go through their series of interviews and meetings is a shining example of character development. Vogel is a far darker, depressive protagonist than I would every have expected to see in a film that focuses on the beloved children’s television host, but it works, as even in his actual program, Rogers found ways to explain mature concepts like death and divorce to children in a way that did not insult their intelligence. A scene between Rogers and Vogel in a restaurant is one of the more striking moments, and it uses silence brilliantly. Mr. Rogers apparently understood people and their feelings in extreme depth, and uses that tactful compassion in this exceptional character-building moment.
I’d be remiss to not mention director Marielle Heller. This is the first of her films that I have seen, and I’m going to go back and take a look at her other work, because I really enjoyed seeing her creativity in this movie. This could easily have become a standard biopic that just went by the numbers and relied on Hanks’ spectacular performance as Mr. Rogers but she instead found an unexpected way to use this story to dissect and use the positive messages of Rogers’ work in a way that I think he would have been proud of. He’s not shown as a perfect person, but he recognizes his own personal faults and uses what he learns about himself to try to help others. Heller has constructed a feature length version of an episode of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” and the spirit of the show shines through in every aspect of its presentation. I really got a kick out of the scene transitions that used miniatures to portray characters traveling to different places, even though it is used often, it never got old.
I think that a lot of people who see this movie are going to be surprised. I think most are understandably expecting a movie that will focus on Mr. Rogers, but will instead be met with an at times strange, but therapeutic story that uses Mr. Rogers as a seasoning instead of featuring him front and center throughout. While I mostly really enjoyed this movie, the only real negatives I have are that while well acted, some of the scenes of Lloyd’s family drama with his wife and his estranged father are extremely predictable, and the later scenes of his family troubles are just not as engaging as what is going on between Lloyd and Mr. Rogers. The movie also gets fairly surreal at a couple points as well in the beginning and middle, but seriously eases off of the weird as we approach the ending, and I feel that those scenes had a lot of value, and showed us a window into Vogel’s mind and what he really was feeling deep down, so I wish that we could have kept those threads instead of throwing them totally aside. I strongly recommend this movie though, and I think that it would appeal to most people. I will also be absolutely stunned if Tom Hanks is not nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards come January.
I’m going to give “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”