A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Director: Marielle Heller
Stars: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Chris Copper, Susan Kelechi Watson, Maryann Plunkett
Duration: 108 mins
KRS Releasing Ltd
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood sets the scene for what is to come remarkably effectively in its first few minutes. The camera pans across a very realistic-looking toy town while a tram trolley ambles across, with the camera finally stopping outside a house. The front door opens into a welcoming living room. A smartly dressed man walks in. He goes to the closet, removes his jacket and replaces it with a red cardigan. He sits down and takes his shoes off and puts on a pair of sneakers instead. All the while, he is addressing us, the audience, as we look on at this unfolding scenario with some curiosity.
The man is in fact addressing his own television audience. For this is Mister Rogers (Tom Hanks), a television stalwart in the US from 1968 to 2001 who went on to become a legend. In his show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the kindly Fred Rogers would talk to his young audiences about all sorts of topics, but he also took on the role of mentor – giving advice to millions of children across the states as they grappled with the myriad issues they faced while growing up. He listened to them, connected with them, and became an important part of their world, maintaining his popularity for decades.
Hanks adopts a stillness and quiet-talking, almost spiritual demeanour that was typical of Rogers – on screen and in real life – and he is in a word, mesmerising
The film begins in the late 1990s, when Mister Rogers had been on the air close to 30 years. New York Investigative journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is surprisingly assigned a profile on Rogers by his editor. Unsure why he – a veteran of hard-hitting journalism – was asked to do this, Vogel takes on the task with the view of exposing him as a fraud. But this was not to be. For on the first meeting with the icon, hediscovers a man who is as honest and authentic as his TV persona – he IS in fact his TV persona and the professional relationship established between two soon forms the basis of a strong friendship.
The story is actually inspired by award-winning journalist Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire profile on Fred Rogers, ‘Can You Say...Hero?’, and the more jaded among you will be forgiven for thinking that this sounds a little twee. However, in the hands of the performers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood rises above any potential clichés to present a story of an unlikely friendship with just the right touch hint of cockle-warming nostalgia, heightened by the clever melding of the fictional TV world and the real world under Marielle Heller’s spot-on direction.
For this is more than a puff piece about Mister Rogers. The focus of the story is as much on Vogel as it is on Rogers, if not more. We learn that the journalist suffered serious family issues as a child; issues which come to the fore when his estranged father (Chris Cooper) turns up after many years absent from his life.
The stress of this added to the stress of recently becoming a father himself means Vogel must take a long hard look at himself and it is Mister Rogers who leads him there with his uncanny habit of turning all questions back onto this interlocutor. It is almost a subtle cat-and-mouse game – the more probing questions Vogel asks of Rogers, the more he learns about himself.
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve praised Hanks’ penchant of turning each everyman character he plays into a hero; and his portrayal is the epitome of that. Normally quite energetic as an actor in his performances, here Hanks adopts a stillness and quiet-talking, almost spiritual demeanour that was typical of Rogers – on screen and in real life – and he is, in a word, mesmerising.
Rhys also easily gets under the skin of his character whose seemingly ordered world slowly starts to fall apart as he is given this bum assignment and his dad suddenly reappears.
The contrast between his rattled life and the calm, perfect one lived by Rogers and his wife is the one that drives the movie, ultimately delivering the message that hope and kindness can triumph over anger and cynicism any day. It’s a lovely inspirational little piece, eschewing schmaltzy sentimentality for genuine emotion.
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