A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood might not be the film you think it is. It looks like it is going to be about US children’s TV presenter Fred Rogers (for a UK audience think Floella Benjamin or Brian Cant but with a longer career and much more cultural significance) but he is not the main character. The film isn’t about him, it is about someone who meets and gets to know him. The protagonist isn’t even a real person so it’s like one of those fictional stories where actual historical figures appear as supporting players like I.Q. or The Prestige, Midnight in Paris, Bill & Ted or numerous episodes of Doctor Who. I guess it is most reminiscent of that film where Eddie Redmayne’s film student hangs out with Marilyn Monroe (which I know is supposed to be true but come on). Yep, this is effectively My Week with Mr. Rogers.
The set up of the film isn’t entirely without basis. Matthew Rhys plays Lloyd Vogel, a writer for Esquire Magazine, who interviews Tom Hanks’ impossibly nice Rogers and in doing so documents the way their time together heals him of his emotional damage and psychological problems. There was a writer and there was an Esquire cover story and it did share a little of the journalist’s personal story. Moments from the piece do play out in the film but, as the credits state, this is ‘inspired’ by that article.
The part that seems to be most true is that Mr. Rogers was impossibly nice, at least on the surface. This isn’t to say that this shakes any pedestals; what is established is that no one, not even Mrs. Rogers, ever sees what is below the surface. This is a man that consciously made an effort to be kind to everyone and as a result was genuinely kind to everyone. It is a subtle but fascinating piece of characterisation and Tom Hanks is, of course, tremendous and perfect for this role in particular. Peter Hook, the lead singer of New Order, once said of Steve Coogan’s portrayal of Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People that it was the biggest €~^+ in Manchester being played by the second biggest €~^+ in Manchester. Well this might be the loveliest man in America being played by the second loveliest man in America. (Incidentally Coogan always comes across as a nice guy to me, maybe he’s changed since 2002.) I’d no sooner accuse Fred Rogers of hiding a darkness than I would Tom Hanks but it does seem that there was something not quite normal in his generous behaviour towards others. Maybe that’s me being uncharitable and cynical but I think the movie expects that reaction from me and plays with it. There might be artifice in Mr. Rogers but there is no criticism of that. This might make the movie a little too saccharine for some but it didn’t go over the edge for me (but then I’m the guy who also loves Hanks in The Polar Express).
Actually though this film is demonstrably about artifice. Much is made of the constructed nature of the setting of the long running TV show Mister Roger’s Neighborhood and how this may not be hugely less realistic than the constructed world that any of us live in. In a nice touch, the New York cityscapes are also made of balsa wood and paint like the shots of the Neighborhood of Make Believe where Rogers invited preschool children to join him every week for three decades. There is even a sequence where Rhys’ Vogel finds himself amongst the puppets of this land that uses a lot of the grammar of horror films like Suspiria, Event Horizon and A Nightmare on Elm Street and is the only part of the film that, inadvertently or otherwise, makes Rogers a little creepy. In the end it is asking us to consider the characters Mr. Rogers plays alongside those we play ourselves.
Narratively the way in which Vogel is quickly healed and forgives his father some pretty heinous past behaviour at the end might seem a little rushed but with the mixture of realism and pretending that permeates throughout this isn’t a failing.
So I said that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood might not be the film you think it is but actually I would suggest it is a better one. It plays with notions of idolising celebrity and how the way we interact at a distance with these people through our screens and how this feeds into our own behaviours with those we mix with for real. For those of us that have spent the last four months of our professional lives on Zoom and Microsoft Teams this might just be the perfect think piece for right now.
The Ripley Factor:
This is a story about three men; Rogers, Vogel and his father. Women still play an important part though, especially Vogel’s wife Andrea. Rather than being sidelined, she is a rounded and essential part of the story and possibly the most real person in it. This, I am sure, is what happens when a film is written by two blokes, Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue, but directed by a woman, Marielle Heller.
Heller was one of the directors mentioned earlier in the year when people were bemoaning the lack of women nominated in the awards shows. They were right to kick up a fuss about this and they were right to bring Heller into the argument. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is an intriguing film that in less skilled hands might have been something a bit more ordinary. It might have been that film we thought it was.
Read the Esquire article here: https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/tv/a27134/can-you-say-hero-esq1198/