A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (PG)
03/01/20 22:13 Filed in: 2018
Directed by: Marielle Heller
Starring: Tom Hanks
Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the biopic based on the life of Fred Rogers (better known as Mister Rogers), features a casting coup. Tom Hanks is astounding as the soft-spoken, affable creator of the children’s educational program, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” which aired on PBS from 1968 to 2001. Even though he isn’t a dead ringer for Rogers in appearance, Hanks nails the TV host’s mannerisms and speech patterns…and he rocks the red sweater.
The story takes place in 1998, when struggling journalist, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), is handed an assignment to write a piece on Rogers. After conducting his initial interview with Rogers, Vogel walks away with more questions than answers, largely owing to the fact that Rogers is much more interested in learning about Vogel than talking about himself. After witnessing Rogers preempt filming to talk to a disadvantaged child, the jaded journalist is left to wonder if it’s all part of an act.
Rogers takes a liking to the “broken” writer and tries to get Vogel to open up about his past, specifically his strained relationship with his father, Jerry (Chris Cooper). With Rogers’ wise council, Vogel attempts to patch things up with Jerry, who has fallen ill and is nearing death.
For those who grew up watching Mister Rogers on TV, the film will be a nostalgic trip. The show’s opener, where Rogers changes into his sweater and exchanges his tennis shoes for slippers (with the iconic slipper toss from one hand to the other), is an indelible sequence. The miniature sets, replete with tiny homes and moving trolley cars, will be a stroll down memory lane for many in the audience.
Speaking of those scaled-down sets, the movie’s art department cleverly constructed several Rogers-esque neighborhoods to stand in for real housing developments in the movie. City skylines, like Pittsburgh and pre-9/11 NYC, are brilliantly realized and come complete with blinking lights at night. The shot of a toy plane taking off from a play-set airport is also amusing.
Though nothing alike thematically, Beautiful reminds me of Julie & Julia (2009) structurally. That story bounced back and forth between Julia’s (Meryl Streep) experiences in a Parisian culinary school in the past and Julie’s (Amy Adams) blog challenge in her NYC flat in the present. Even though it doesn’t involve any time jumping, Beautiful splits its focus between Vogel and Rogers, with their shared scenes serving as the heart of the story.
Disappointingly, Rogers’ story doesn’t exist apart from Vogel’s, except during the reenactment of various scenes from Rogers’ show. Lest we forget (and the savvy audience surely hasn’t), this is supposed to be a movie about Rogers, not the troubled journalist who writes an article about him—in real life, Tom Junod’s article “Can You Say…Hero?” appeared in Esquire. Though not without magical and memorable moments, the movie could’ve used a lot more Rogers and a little less Vogel.
That isn’t to say the Vogel storyline is devoid of meaning or relevance. Beautiful’s father/son estrangement subplot would feel right at home in many other movies dealing with familial strife. Here, the Vogel family drama consistently upstages the movie’s main storyline and its central figure.
The Rogers/Vogel pairing is an intriguing juxtaposition of attitudes and worldviews. Theirs is truly a tale of two eras.
Rogers represents the past—the early to mid-20th century, an era when people treated each other with decency, civility and respect. It also was a time when people placed an emphasis on hard work, family, community and faith. Fittingly, Fred Rogers had a very Will Rogers perspective on people (apparently, the latter once remarked that he never met a person he didn’t like).
In a similar vein, Rogers believed that everyone is precious. As portrayed in the movie, Rogers spoke kind and wise words in near-hypnotic tones. Then he would look into a person’s eyes, listen to them intently and remember what they said…an interpersonal skill set that eludes many members of today’s perpetually distracted society.
By contrast, Vogel represents the late 20th century (and opening 1/5th of the 21st century). He’s angry, cynical and self-important. If Vogel doesn’t want to talk to someone, he just walks out of the room (or kicks them out of his house). He’s skeptical of genuine kindness and often struggles to express his emotions.
Vogel won’t let anyone get too close to him, which is why it’s remarkable that Vogel eventually opens up to Rogers. The fact that Rogers and Vogel become friends proves that the generation gap can be bridged. Rogers becomes a type of surrogate father to Vogel.
Vogel and his real father eventually find common ground too. Vogel’s decision to forgive Jerry, despite his past mistakes, is a beautiful moment. The movie’s recurring theme of relational reconciliation finds its fullest expression during the deathbed scenes, which, despite their inherent solemnity, initiate a heartwarming, crowd-pleasing resolution.
In the end, Beautiful is an uplifting tribute to a truly kind and caring soul. Even though this slice of life spotlight on Rogers is inspiring, it would’ve been nice to see the full sweep of his life and career. The movie barely scratches the surface of who Rogers was as a person (like the fact that he was a Presbyterian minister and attended the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Child Development). For a well-orbed portrait of Rogers, watch the superb documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018).
Let’s all follow Rogers’ example and share some kindness with others today. It’s a beautiful day for it.
Rating: 3 out of 4