Some people see a glass as half-full, the saying goes, while others see it as half-empty. The latter usually become journalists.
Even if you aren’t predisposed to cynicism when you start in the industry, it sneaks up on you over time. The job, after all, exposes you to the worst of humanity: the murderers, the child molesters, the drunk drivers. Even the “good guys” sometimes lie and act out of their own self-interest. Over time, the ideal of a truly good person seems like something that belongs in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
The cynicism creeps into film criticism too. You’ve seen a good movie? I’ll believe it when I see it. I’ve been let down enough times to realize that even a “good” film has flaws.
A film might have terrific performances and impeccable craft, but messages that leave me cold. Another might have a story that connects with the heart, but tin-eared execution. You want a movie that’s smart, well-crafted and inspiring? Well, you might as well wish for a unicorn.
Which is to say, I empathize a bit with Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), the Esquire journalist at the heart of Marielle Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” When he is assigned a profile piece on Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks), he can barely conceal his disdain.
“Mr. Rogers? As in the hokey kid’s show guy?”
Rogers’ public persona, then and now, is one of wholesome unadulterated goodness. And it can’t be that simple, can it?
The answer to that question is both yes and no. Yes, Rogers turns out to be essentially the same person that you saw on your TV screens every day as a child. But, no, goodness isn’t simple. It takes intentionality and hard work. Goodness, as Mr. Rogers displayed it, is attainable, but it isn’t easy.
“If you think of him as a saint, then his way of being is unattainable,” Rogers’ wife Joanne (Maryann Plunkett) says in the film. “He works at it all the time. It’s a practice. He’s not a perfect person. He has a temper. He chooses how he responds to that anger.”
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” like its subject, seems deceptively simple at times, but I am happy to report that there is much more going on under the surface. It is never as maudlin or as sickeningly sweet as the phrase “Mr. Rogers biopic” suggests. It is elevated by a couple of 2019’s best performances and some unexpectedly clever creative decisions from director Marielle Heller and scriptwriters Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue.
But it’s Heller’s encapsulation of the ethos of Fred Rogers – his intentionality, his kindness, his goodness- that makes this one of my favorite films of 2019. It is a rare film that is both aesthetically pleasing and inspiring to the point of making you want to become a better person. But “Beautiful Day” pulls off the hat trick nicely.
The film is “based on a true story”, we’re told, which is technically true since one of the two main characters is indeed a real person. Vogel, the Esquire journalist, is not – although he is inspired ever so loosely by Tom Junod. Junod, to my knowledge, never had anger issues or problems with his father or marital strife. This is all film fiction, but, in the terms of what Heller is trying to accomplish, remarkably effective fiction.
Vogel, played with sensitivity and compassion by Rhys, is our audience stand-in and our window into the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. We, like Vogel, all come into this story with our own baggage, our own cynicism and our own doubts that Rogers could really be as good as he seemed. But, as soon as Rogers appears onscreen, those doubts begin to wash away.
The casting of Hanks as Rogers might seem to be the definition of “on-the-nose” if it didn’t work so well. He captures the cadence of Rogers’ voice, the mannerisms, the quiet intentionality. If Hanks never quite disappears into the character- he’s much too famous to disappear into any character at this point in his career-it also never feels like a “Saturday Night Live” impression.
Hanks’ performance is elevated by the script, which takes a few steps back every time it gets dangerously close to portraying Rogers as the second coming of Jesus Christ. We’re shown how Rogers’ focus on others sometimes made him difficult to work with –“He’s ruining my life,” says Margy Whitmer (Carmen Cusack), producer of “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.”
I also appreciated how the film showed just what a terrible interviewee Rogers likely was. At times, you wonder if his tactic of asking questions of his interviewer was more evasive than compassionate.
These scenes are effective not because they demonize Rogers, but because they humanize him – a particularly difficult challenge as nostalgia has solidified him as one of the twentieth century’s most famous saints.
Those scenes aren’t the only delights of Harpster and Fitzerman-Blue’s script though. The writers are also unafraid to dip into downright weird territory with some trippy dream sequences and a clever framing device.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is a film that could have easily had a phoned-in script, but Harpster and Fitzerman-Blue choose to go in the opposite direction by making bold, often downright strange, creative choices. The same goes for Heller, who, in one of the film’s cleverest creative decisions, chooses to use Neighborhood-of-Make-Believe-style models for all of her establishing shots.
Not all of these creative decisions work, it must be said. And some of the material that worked incredibly well in the 2018 documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”- such as Rogers asking Vogel to think about the people who “loved him into being”- seems curiously shoehorned in.
To only give fleeting lip service to Rogers’ Christianity – he was an ordained minister “whose pulpit was television” according to “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”- does the man a slight disservice, I think.
If that sounds like nitpicking, well, it is. Because at the end of the day, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” (rated PG for some strong thematic material, a brief fight and some mild language) is a good story about a good man told well.
It can’t be that simple, can it? Well sometimes, thankfully, it can.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at email@example.com.