Fresh off her triumph with Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Marielle Heller switches gears from the edgy nihilism of that film to one of pure optimism with A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood. Written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, it focuses on the very personal connection journalist Tom Junod had with Mr. Rogers while writing a profile on the beloved icon. Its success depends entirely on your ability to keep a straight face in the presence of such unbridled goodness. I’m a pessimistic Jew, so I tend to reject sentimental material as a rule, but this movie has enough weirdness and creativity to carry you through its often maudlin material.
Those going in expecting a Fred Rogers biopic may feel disappointed, as Tom Hanks’ portrayal takes a back seat to Matthew Rhys’ Lloyd Vogel, a fictionalized version of Junod. Check out the incredible 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? for the full Rogers treatment and your inevitable weeping. This film bookends itself as if it were a very special episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, allowing Hanks’ Rogers to tell the story of an absent father and his long-suffering son. It’s a fascinating way to tell Vogel’s story about coping with his disinterested dad Jerry, played here with equal parts gusto and fragility by Chris Cooper.
As a depressive adult who lives in New York City with his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson from This Is Us), Lloyd travels to Pittsburgh to write a story about Rogers. At first insulted by such a soft assignment, he soon finds Fred’s worldview fascinating. With as much baggage as Lloyd has, he finds the softspoken, open hearted Fred to be somewhat of an aberration, but ultimately even he can’t resist his charms. It’s impossible not to melt when a group of young subway passengers sing Rogers’ theme song back to him, or when Fred challenges Lloyd to a full minute of silence as they stare at each other in a diner. Rogers, especially through Hanks’ disarming performance, truly changed the world, offering up a generosity of spirit carefully crafted to combat the evils of society.
Your threshold for mush will definitely color your opinions of the film as a whole. Rhys, however, who with The Americans proved himself as a world class actor, does wonderfully subtle, unforced work here. Just the downward turn of his head during some difficult scenes speaks volumes and his rapport with Watson brings some welcome humor to the proceedings. Much of the movie, however, delves into some pretty uncomfortable moments between Lloyd and his father. Ultimately, it all felt like a very special episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which, while clearly the mission of the film, got a little old for me.
Luckily, Heller, who showed off her creative chops with the animated sequences in The Diary Of A Teenage Girl, delightfully uses miniature planes and cars to illustrate every time Lloyd travels. It all adds up to an immersive experience into the Rogers aesthetic. Mileage may vary depending on your willingness to let all that love envelop you. Regardless, we all could use a little bit of Mr. Rogers’ mist in our lives, even if it sometimes feels like the glitter that falls off of a Hallmark card.
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood gets a 0, or maybe a 50 out of 50 depending on how much you subscribe to the “Mr. Rogers Was Gay” conspiracy theory! I’ve always thought he might have been a closeted gay man who married for appearances at a time when that was his best option. But remember, pessimistic Jew here! Maybe he was the second coming of Christ in a cardigan. What do I know? I just may be guilty of stereotyping. Wouldn’t be the first time. Can you ever forgive me?
By Glenn Gaylord
A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood continues to play with its puppets and toy cars all over the U.S.