An innovative anti-biopic with an enduring message for a weary world.
This is a spoiler-free review. To discuss spoilers, head over to the A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood Spoil Sports.
Let’s be honest, you don’t need me to sell you on a movie about beloved children’s icon Mister Rogers. The world is goddamn tire fire these days, so of course a movie about the previous nicest guy on earth played by the current nicest guy on earth is something we all need right now. As such, it would have been easy for director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) to churn out a gooey piece of holiday schmaltz fit for regular rotation on the Hallmark channel. Instead she and her team have produced a creative and touching anti-biopic, a story not about the man himself but rather the tremendous impact he made on the lives of everyone around him and the lessons he continues to teach us all about love and compassion.
In place of a classic by-the-numbers narrative, Heller utilizes a clever framing device by making the film itself a feature-length episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The real-world narrative of the film is intercut with establishing shots of adorable diorama versions of Pittsburgh and Manhattan, complete with moving airplanes and taxicabs. Tom Hanks-as-Rogers opens the film by singing the show’s iconic song, zipping up the cardigan and donning the blue tennis shoes before introducing us to the film’s true protagonist: magazine writer Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys). Lloyd is an angry man, and his experiences with the harsh cruelties of humanity have left him cynical and eager to find the worst in everyone, even an adored children’s television host. Having recently been brought low by a bitter and violent altercation with his estranged father (perennial Bad Dad Chris Cooper), his editor sends him to interview Rogers. The differences between the two men could not be more stark, and the skeptical Lloyd attempts to find the cracks in Rogers’ saintly persona. However his own cracks are on full display for the perceptive, ever-patient Rogers who attempts to help Lloyd work through his anger using the same techniques espoused in his show.
Admittedly, this all sounds like pretty saccharine stuff. Treasured children’s entertainer helps an angry man overcome his emotional barriers through the power of love. And yet the film manages to stay grounded, in part by keeping Lloyd’s story from veering into the melodramatic. Lloyd is a character many can see themselves in: a man wronged in childhood by a thoughtless parent who is now terrified of making the same mistakes with his own infant son. But even more basic than that, Lloyd is someone generally beaten down by an uncaring world, and it’s easy in 2019 to empathize with that. Moreover, the techniques Rogers uses to get through to Lloyd mercifully lack the histrionics of typical movie psychologists. All Lloyd needs is someone to listen, show interest in his problems, and give him tools to work through them. In short, Lloyd really just needs a good therapist.
And indeed the film is at its weakest when Lloyd ultimately has his epiphany moment. Film is a poor medium for the exploration of psychological trauma because healing is an ongoing process, yet films require three-act structures with climaxes and resolutions. Yet even if the end result of Lloyd’s own journey feels a tad unearned, the lessons Rogers teaches are not just for Lloyd’s benefit, but for the viewer as well. An astonishing fourth-wall breaking scene invites the audience to take part in a small moment of healing, and it says a lot about the state of our world when a film simply about the importance of having love and compassion for others can bring an entire theater to tears.
Matthew Rhys does excellent work as Lloyd, whose pain and sadness are written across his face for all to see. Rhys is — and I mean this in the best possible way — an actor who excels in playing broken, troubled men, yet exhibits restraint to keep Lloyd’s arc from feeling overly-maudlin.
Tom Hanks plays Rogers adequately, and indeed no other actor could possibly play him better. But viewing the film you’re always keenly aware you’re watching Tom Hanks playing Fred Rogers, and his attempt to mimic Rogers’ delicate inflection occasionally veers into the infantile. However inasmuch as the film itself is a representation of Rogers’ positive influence rather than Rogers himself, so too does Hanks’ presence as America’s most-beloved actor serve as an avatar for Rogers as America’s most-beloved educator.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood delivers all the warm, fuzzy feels of the best holiday films, but it also urges the viewer to take those good vibes a step further. Just as Ebineezer Scrooge vowed to keep the spirit of Christmas in his heart throughout the year, A Beautiful Day encourages the viewer to take Fred Rogers’ philosophy to heart and use it to be a better person throughout their lives. And going into what will no doubt be a tumultuous 2020, that’s a lesson we could all stand to learn.