A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

beautiful_day_in_the_neighborhoodSTARS3Fred Rogers was an American icon.  He hosted Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, a TV show directed at preschool-aged children.  Considering both the movie poster and the title, you’d think that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood would be about that man.  You’d be wrong and that idiosyncrasy is what makes this production so strange.  This is, in fact, a story about a cynical somewhat misanthropic journalist named Lloyd Vogel portrayed by Matthew Rhys (FX TV’s The Americans) as seen through the eyes of American children’s host Mister Rogers played by Tom Hanks.

Lloyd Vogel works for Esquire magazine and he’s been assigned to do a profile on Mister Rogers that he doesn’t want to do. Incidentally, Vogel is based on a very real journalist named Tom Junod who wrote an article entitled “Can You Say…Hero?” published in November of 1998.  Lloyd isn’t a happy man and much of the drama explains why he is the way he is.  We are introduced to the various people in his family, his personable wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), their baby son Gavin and Lloyd’s father Jerry (Chris Cooper).  Mister Rogers assumes the role of a therapist to the writer as he tries to gently help him repair the damaged relationship that he has with his dad.

Tom Hanks is America’s sweetheart, sort of a modern-day James Stewart and watching him portray Mister Rogers is odd because he’s so famous that it is impossible for him to disappear into the role.  Hanks doesn’t look like the actual man either.  Although he does affect his beatific demeanor.  It’s a peculiar performance that has received critical acclaim but it left me cold.  He seems almost alien or otherworldly.  Fred Rodgers was unquestionably a unique personality but at least his singularly placid disposition felt natural.  Hanks’ movements, in contrast, are jerkier and appear like studied behavioral traits.  He’s so affected that the demonstration becomes an amiable parody rather than a manifestation of the individual.

Like the man himself, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is supremely gentle and restrained.  I was fascinated by how passive the whole exercise was.  Visually the feature is enchanting.  Production designer Jade Healy has used miniatures to recreate cityscapes and little vehicles like jets taking off to signify when people travel.  This mimics the look and feel of his original children’s TV program.  The set of the TV show Fred Rogers occupied is perfectly recreated at WQED in Pittsburgh, where the original series was filmed.  The “Neighborhood of Make-Believe” also makes an appearance.  This fictional kingdom populated by hand puppets is beautifully brought to life.

Director Marielle Heller is a talented filmmaker responsible for the audacious The Diary of a Teenage Girl and the even more accomplished Can You Ever Forgive Me?  I am a fan. Here she makes a lot of creative decisions that are easy to admire but hard to enjoy.  The fragments fixated on Mister Rogers are fascinating because he’s an interesting man.  The portions centered on the inaccessible Lloyd Vogel aren’t compelling.  His transformative journey goes exactly to the place to which I expected.  The screenplay by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster triggered unexpected flashbacks to when I saw Julie & Julia a decade ago.  When the comedic drama featured Julia Child the chef, it was a delight.  When Julie Powell the blogger became the focus, it was significantly less so.  Likewise, Fred Rogers is inherently appealing.   When the film concentrates on him it’s captivating.  Unfortunately, this is a biography about Lloyd Vogel.

11-21-19

5 Responses to “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”

  1. Just ok. Last quarter was good. I did like the miniature scenes when someone traveled. That was good. Tom Hanks… didn’t like him as Fred Rogers. I just saw Tom Hanks. 3 stars

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  2. No thanks. I still haven’t seen the documentary that came out earlier this year that everyone raved about.

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