Writer Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is an investigative journalist for Esquire magazine. He’s married to Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) and they have a beautiful baby boy named Gavin. The Vogels go to his sister Lorraine’s (Tammy Blanchard) wedding where his estranged father Jerry (Chris Cooper) is giving away the bride. Jerry abandoned the family right after Lloyd’s mother discovered she had terminal cancer. Lloyd holds a great deal of resentment towards Jerry and when Jerry drunkenly tries talking to him, Lloyd punches him and is punched by another person in the wedding. Lloyd’s editor at Esquire, Ellen (Christine Lahti), assigns him to write a brief article on children’s show host Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) for the magazine’s edition focusing on heroes. Lloyd is offended at being given a puff piece, but Ellen shoos him away to write the story. Lloyd calls to set up an interview and later that night, Fred Rogers calls and chats with Lloyd. Lloyd then goes to Pittsburgh, where Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood is recorded, to meet with him. Their interview doesn’t go as Lloyd expects and is cut short with Rogers needed on set. Lloyd tells Andrea, Rogers is too good to be true. He tells Ellen he needs more time and interviews with Rogers as he’s more complicated than he appears. Through all this, Jerry is trying to talk with Lloyd, parking outside his apartment for two days and showing up with pizza. Lloyd is obsessed with breaking through and getting to the REAL Fred Rogers.
This will be a short review. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is an amazing and unique film. It seems very straightforward in the trailers and looks light a heartwarming story of an unusual friendship, and it is. However, the movie is far from straightforward in the way it tells the story, how it frames the events and what the movie is really about. There are few films that can be both simple and complex, and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” manages to pull off that trick.
Tom Hanks is everything you’d want and expect him to be as Mr. Rogers. He has that infinite kindness in his eyes. He’s unremarkable while also being remarkable. Rogers loved children and loved to teach them about the world the way it is, with all the pain and heartbreak, but in the most gentle way. Hanks embodies Mr. Rogers fully, exuding a warmth and kindness that would be looked upon with suspicion should anyone else behave the same way. Matthew Rhys’ Lloyd Vogel casts a doubtful eye on Hanks’ Rogers. That just makes Rogers treat him with more love and understanding, which infuriates Vogel.
The way their early interactions are written is filled with uncomfortable silences as Rogers doesn’t answer Vogel’s questions and begins trying to break through Vogel’s angry shell. Rogers might be thought of as passive-aggressive in these scenes, but he’s really looking for Vogel’s soft spot. That part of his personality, his soul, that is hurting and needs soothing compassion. Just before their first meeting, Rogers’ business partner Bill Isler, played by Enrico Colantoni, tells Vogel that Rogers loves guys like him, and that bit of dialog comes back later during a pivotal scene. Vogel is a hardened man. His writing looks for the dirt, the darkness in his subjects. It’s getting harder for him to find stories because anyone that’s read his work doesn’t want to talk to him. He assumes the worst about people and manages to find the worst in everyone…except Fred Rogers. He keeps looking, but it isn’t there. He has plenty of darkness that he’s ignored for years. Now, with his father returning, that darkness and anger is beginning to take over.
The film uses miniatures that look like the Neighborhood of Make Believe to do the interstitials between scenes, like when Lloyd is traveling from New York to Pittsburgh and other scene transitions. It’s an unusual choice when stock footage of planes taking off or highway traffic could have been used. But it becomes comforting to watch a small model of a jetliner move down a runway and takeoff nearly straight up, like a child was guiding the movements.
I believe the director, Marielle Heller, might have been showing us how the mundane reality of air travel, commuting and other things we find tedious is like child’s play in the grand scheme. We often complain about traffic jams, security lines at airports, long waits at the grocery checkout, when it’s all meaningless. We ignore the suffering of millions around the world, turn our eyes away from the homeless person on the corner, shrug our shoulders at hate crimes on the nightly news as if to say, “What are you gonna do?” Mr. Rogers Neighborhood of Make Believe touched on difficult subjects with old puppets and simple songs for toddlers. He talked about looking for people that helped in times of trouble as a sign of hope. The childlike quality of parts of this film are an attempt to open our minds and give the world, with all its hate, war, crime and suffering, a look with fresh, childlike eyes.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is rated PG for some strong thematic material, a brief fight, and some mild language. The fight consists of a shove and a couple of punches. Family abandonment is the focus of much of the film. Language is very mild and infrequent.
I don’t know if “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” will get Tom Hanks another Oscar nod, but the film deserves to win any and every award for which it’s nominated. The final scene of Hanks playing a piano in the dark should get him at least consideration. It is such a sweet film with unexpected moments of humor and joy, it might get run over by other more “serious” movies about big, important ideas. That’s fine, I suppose. But if you want to watch a film that works over your tear ducts and gives them a strong punch every now and again, then “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is definitely the film for you.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” gets five tear-stained stars.
The holiday delivers a couple of very different releases for your post-Thanksgiving weekend. I’ll be seeing at least one of the following:
Queen & Slim—
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