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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD has been promoted as a Fred Rogers biopic, and it it is true that Tom Hanks (THE LADYKILLERS) tackles the challenge of portraying the famously gentle Neighborhood of Make-Believe resident. But it’s not his life story, or even the smarter kind of biopic that focuses on one period as a microcosm of his life. Instead it makes him a supporting character in the story of a journalist coming to terms with his estranged father while working on a magazine profile of Rogers. I guess it’s kind of like SAVING MR. BANKS, where Hanks played Walt Disney as co-lead with a highly fictionalized P.L. Travers, but it’s probly more comparable to if MILES AHEAD was mostly about Ewan McGregor’s character dealing with family issues and Miles Davis occasionally gives him good advice that he rejects until the end of the movie.

So it doesn’t matter much that this is coming on the heels of a popular documentary (WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?) that it could never equal – it’s not the same thing at all. They do manage to work in a few re-enactments of famous moments (a couple seconds of his congressional testimony) and remixes of scenes from the documentary (a crowded cafe – and therefore the theater you’re sitting in – goes silent when he asks our protagonist to stop and think about “the people who loved you into being”). But if I remember right the documentary had a part where writer Tom Junod said that writing a profile on Rogers for Esquire changed his attitude toward life, and this is mostly extrapolated from that idea, with Rogers as guest star guru to writer Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys, TITUS).

Junod seems to approve of the movie, but as far as I can tell it’s almost entirely fictional. The real “Can You Say… Hero?” only mentions Junod’s dad once, and in a positive light. The little bits that do come from the article are pumped up with extra drama – for example the movie has an emotional moment with a shy Make-a-Wish visitor that just swings a plastic sword at Mr. Rogers, who gets through to him by kneeling down and telling him how strong he is inside. In the article it was a random kid in Penn Station whose mom was embarrassed that her son wasn’t impressed by Rogers. So when he said that to the kid he wasn’t talking about cancer or anything.

The profile does talk about Junod’s childhood toy Old Rabbit – in the movie a Rosebud-like key to his past that Rogers has to painstakingly dig out of him – but he seems happy to write and talk about it. It’s the first paragraph, even.

Oh well. Whatever Tom Junod’s deal was, Lloyd Vogel is in a dark place after seeing his dad Jerry (Chris Cooper, MONEY TRAIN) at a wedding and starting a fist fight with him. At work, Lloyd’s editor (Christine Lahti, HIDEAWAY) is sick of his edgelord bullshit and sends him to Pittsburgh to write 400 words on Rogers. He thinks it’s a shitty assignment and is unimpressed that his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson, Louie) is so excited about him meeting a beloved icon of her childhood that she forgives him leaving her alone with their newborn son.

As we know from the documentary, Rogers is incredibly humble and nice to Lloyd, goes out of his way to be accommodating, cares deeply about his issues and is more interested in helping him be happy than talking about himself. But Lloyd recoils at any personal talk and asks dickish questions working from the assumption that Rogers is some kind of phony.

At home, Jerry tries to contact his son to try to work things out, and Lloyd keeps telling him off. But Andrea lets Jerry and his perfectly nice-seeming girlfriend Dorothy (Wendy Makkena, SISTER ACT 1-2, AIR BUD) into the apartment for a make-up dinner, which Lloyd then turns into a big scene and tirade that ends in Jerry having a heart attack and Lloyd just standing there trying not to show concern. Makkena is particularly great in this scene with her mix of discomfort for the situation and caring for Jerry, putting her arms around him and trying to convince him it’s time to leave as things get more tense.

I enjoyed director Marielle Heller’s last film, CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?, which also has a grouchy, talented writer as the protagonist. Played by Melissa McCarthy, she’s doing much worse (immoral and illegal) things than Lloyd, and she’s way more of a mess, but at least she’s a funny and charming type of asshole. I struggled a little bit with watching this guy who can witness an entire subway car of New Yorkers spontaneously singing “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” to Rogers and respond with a confused grimace on his dumb asshole face. A guy who is blessed to sit with Mister Rogers trying to talk to him through the Daniel the Lion puppet but yells “This is ridiculous!” and storms out. It seems like he didn’t grow up watching the show, and it’s understandable that he doesn’t like this stranger asking him personal questions. But he’s had like five perfect illustrations of how hugely important this guy is to people, including his own wife, and he’s an award winning magazine writer working on a profile. You’d think he’d have enough self control to just be polite, play along and get some good material.

Don’t get me wrong, I have some sympathy for Lloyd. He’s going through some things. And he’s much easier to take as the Rogers influence chills him out and as we see some of his dad’s attitudes that he’s rejected, like when Jerry marvels at him doing “mom things” like holding and feeding the baby late at night.

But he’s such a grouchy, joyless dick for most of the movie I kept shaking my head at him. I imagined how much more fun the movie could be if he was more of a Melissa McCarthy or even Billy Bob Thornton kind of asshole, not getting Mister Rogers and responding in a mismatched buddy movie kind of way. I’m not even sure how Rogers would handle somebody like that, and it could be pretty funny to watch. But honestly maybe it would be a cheat. Maybe it’s more true to Mister Rogers and to the movie’s theme of grace that we have to learn to understand even this guy who we probly wouldn’t want to spend any time with unless he was our estranged son who we had abandoned and wanted forgiveness from.

If it sounds like I didn’t like the movie then I’m overstating my complaints. Actually I found it very moving, but my opinion of it did lower slightly after reading the original article and realizing that most of the true stuff here was the stuff we already knew. That nudges the “man forced to confront his hatred of his father just as he becomes a father himself” idea over just a tiny notch on the spectrum between “heartfelt personal story” and “calculated melodramatic bullshit.” I think it’s worth noting that they came up with almost the same story when they needed to add emotion to ANGEL HAS FALLEN, of all things. In that movie Gerard Butler reunites with his dad, a drunk who he resents for abandoning he and his mother. In both cases the father is conciliatory but the son angrily rejects him and the wife tries to get him to cool off. But in ANGEL HAS FALLEN he gets over himself much quicker because he’s on the run from the FBI and a team of mercenaries who framed him for an attempted assassination of the president. I’m glad they didn’t have that in BEAUTIFUL DAY because then I really would’ve felt misled when I read the article.

I think I’d have to say Rhys is good in the lead – his off-putting aggro-ness is basically the character. The movie comes to life when that’s bouncing off the positivity of Hanks as Rogers or the more unpredictable Cooper as Jerry. He’s a strong (if obvious) choice to play the drunk dad who pissed you off your whole life who you have to learn to have some love for. Of course he’s great, especially in the later scenes where (SPOILER) he’s sick. Weirdly his weak laugh reminded me of my mom in her last months, so that got me more than a scene I was worried about where Lloyd has a vision of his mother (Jessica Hecht, MY SOUL TO TAKE) on her death bed.

Obviously the make or break performance is Hanks. I say he makes it. When the trailer came out it threw me off that he doesn’t full-on mimic Rogers’ distinctive tones and rhythms, but in context his approach mostly works. I think he especially captures the unique presence of Rogers when he’s just watching, listening, smiling.

I was also impressed by the clever ways Heller and screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue & Noah Harpster (MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL) fit the story of Lloyd and Jerry Vogel into the world of Mister Rogers. As you’d expect we see Rogers taping his show, meeting with Lloyd in public and at home with his wife Joanne (Maryann Plunkett, THE SQUID AND THE WHALE – the real Joanne also cameos), but also the whole real world story is magically contained within an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood where he talks about his friend Lloyd and later welcomes him to his fake house the way he would Mr. McFeely or somebody. At a dramatic point of the movie Lloyd finds himself shrunken down to puppet size inside the castle of King Friday, and somehow it doesn’t seem too goofy. Also, instead of having standard second unit shots of cityscapes and stuff they made little models like on the show. (During the end credits we see some behind-the-scenes model shop footage, also like the show, which was always trying to teach kids how things are made.)

If this is a big hit they could make it into a franchise, an ongoing series of dramas about divorce or alcoholism or whatever and one character meets Mr. Rogers in some professional capacity and he helps them and bookends the story from the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. By part three or four people might get sick of the format, so I better strike quick with my Oscar bait ripoff PITY THE FOOL, which tells the story of a corporate lawyer (Julianne Moore) estranged from her mother who meets Mr. T on the set of The A-Team and learns from his philosophies, including that mother, there is no other, like mother, treat her right, treat her right. Sometimes her world merges with skits and raps from the video BE SOMEBODY… OR BE SOMEBODY’S FOOL, while exteriors of the city come from the Mister T cartoon.

Thank you for your support. It is an honor to have thought of this project and to have in some small way contributed to Michael Jai White’s Oscar win.

additional notes:

1. I guess I never reviewed WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?, but it’s a well-done documentary that pretty much convinces you Rogers is one of the great philosophers of our time. It truly did make me think about how to be more kind and understanding. It also gave me a different context to one of my childhood television-watching memories. I grew up watching the show (the purple panda saga was intense) and I specifically remember an episode where he visited the set of The Incredible Hulk. He was standing in front of a huge fan to show how wind can be simulated on a TV show. But it was notable to me at the time because my mom wouldn’t let me watch The Incredible Hulk – she said it was “too violent.” And I was like what the fuck, Mom. Even Mister Rogers watches The Incredible Hulk.

What I learned about that from the documentary is that I’d been previously watching reruns, he’d stopped making the show for a while, but he came back to do a series of episodes about super hero shows being pretend specifically because he was horrified by the way they seemed to be effecting some kids. He actually agreed with my mom.

2. Speaking as a lifelong Neighborhoodmaniac I gotta say this movie could’ve used more X the Owl, more Trolley, and some acknowledgment that the music was played live in the studio (though I suppose original pianist Johnny Costa had died by the time the story takes place). But Maddie Corman (Zuzu Petals from THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE) is excellent as Lady Aberlin.

3. If you’re into this shit there’s a good earlier documentary called MISTER ROGERS & ME made by a young producer for MTV who was an actual neighbor of the retired Fred Rogers. He becomes fascinated with Rogers’ concept “deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex” and talks to many of Rogers’ friends, some neighbors, and a guy who worked with prisoners and wrote a book that was influential to Rogers. (Unfortunately that guy was disgraced years after the movie and had to shut down his organization – not everybody is as good as Mr. Rogers.)

This entry was posted on Monday, December 9th, 2019 at 7:22 am and is filed under Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

21 Responses to “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”

  1. Thank you, Vern, for helping me make up my mind about this movie. I’ve been on the fence ever since I heard about it. This may come as a surprise to you guys, considering what an utterly un-Mister Rogers-y prick I am, but anybody who really knows me knows I love Mister Rogers. As Emerson once said, we write not just from experience, but from aspiration, and so I admire Mister Rogers for all the qualities I do not possess in sufficient quantities. I, personally, may be fractious and unforgiving, but that only makes me respect him more. His life story is a constant source of both inspiration (for the type of person I’d like to be) and shame (for the type of person I am). MISTER ROGERS & ME made me cry. WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? made me literally sob. But it’s the fact that Fred Rogers was a real person who really behaved the way he did in the real world that gets me in the feels. I don’t have any particular desire to see an actor (even the only actor on earth with any legitimate chance of pulling it off) impersonate Fred Rogers, and now that I know what the movie is really about, I am actively antagonistic to the idea of an actor impersonating Fred Rogers in a Hollywood bullshit, totally-made-up, honkey-asshole-learns-a-lesson Screenwriting 101 storyline. It is my firm belief that a strong story does not need to be goosed along with that kind of by-the-numbers manipulative bullshit, and the story of Fred Rogers and how he chose to live his life is one of those stories. As much as I appreciate that the filmmakers no doubt just wanted to bring Mister Rogers’ message to a wider audience, which can only be a good thing, for me, it’s a disservice to both real life and storytelling to do it this way, and I don’t think I can sanction that kind of buffoonery. They can miss me with this recycled daddy issues garbage. I’ll just watch either of the excellent documentaries on the subject again and get my Mister Rogers fix right from the source.

    Speaking of which, here’s my favorite neighborhood jam. If you can get through this totally dry-eyed, you must be one hard-boiled sonofabitch.

    YouTube

    Enjoy the videos and music you love, upload original content, and share it all with friends, family, and the world on YouTube.

  2. Just like Pee-Wee Herman, Mr Rogers is absolutely obscure to German audiences, except for bits of references and parodies in American popculture, that swept over here.For example my sister just recently heard about him for the first time and instantly became a fan, just by reading about him. I had to tell her “Yeah, he is the guy who is on TV when Hanks awakes from his nightmare in THE BURBS” or who was parodied/homaged in the dancing christmas tree episode of the BILL & TED cartoon.

    But no, I ever actually saw an episode of his show. At least PEE-WEE’S PLAYHOUSE was released on Netflix here a few years ago.

  3. I did like the part where Vogel was being a dick and saying it must’ve been hard to be Mr. Rogers kid and Mr. Rogers took his question seriously, answered sincerely, and thanked Vogel for his consideration of his kids. And Vogel just sighed and his shoulders deflated because he could no longer doubt Mr. Rogers realness and could not stand against his goodness.

    I saw this on the Saturday after Thanksgiving and then saw FROZEN 2 on Sunday and it amused me that the crowd for this one was mostly old folks and they were more disruptive than the kids at FROZEN 2.

  4. Has anywhere here watched the TV Show KIDDING and if so can they tell me if it’s something I might still get into if I found the first two episodes lame? I assumed there was no way such a distinguished crew would waste their time on a lame and dated premise like “yeah we know it seems that against all odds Mr Rogers was the real deal, but what if, get this, he was actually deeply disturbed and trapped in a world of sub-SIX FEET UNDER bullshit”, but based on the first two episodes, they did.

  5. I’m glad to hear Mr. M say all that because I have the exact same reaction; there’s something about Mr. Rogers that just cuts through my defenses. I have snark and cynicism and irony protect myself from feeling anything, but that “deep and simple” honest kindness leaves me entirely helpless, freeing all those repressed feelings to just burst out in a flood of tears. There’s so much in the world that tells us to be cynical, to protect ourselves, to be selfish and miserly with our lives and our souls. But I think most people understand intuitively that we could be better, that we could make this world better, and to see someone actually really do it in such a giving and kind and unpretentious way is moving in a way which is hard to describe. The tears, I think, are less of regret than of relief.

  6. A few years ago I adopted the “what would Mr. Rogers do” philosophy. I know that’s a tired phrase but it actually really has helped me. Maybe because he was a tangible presence in my life before I could properly appreciate his philosophy and teachings.

  7. I didn’t grow up with Mr. Rogers very much, by the time I was of age it was usually reruns and thus something to watch passing the time. I wasn’t really moved by him either, but as an adult I completely recognize the effect he had on kids and the adults they could become. I remember seeing him at the Emmys accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award and it was quite a moving moment to me then, certainly.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Upm9LnuCBUM

    Junod contributed to a book about prog rock with a story from his youth of going to see Genesis during Peter Gabriel’s last tour with the band. The book is entitled YES IS THE ANSWER: AND OTHER PROG ROCK TALES. It’s a good book, but his story is worth the purchase alone as the story is quite extremely harrowing from what I remember, and goes beyond the sort of cliched teenager concert stories.

    Pacman: KIDDING is Jim Carrey’s best work. I was in lock, stock and barrel within those first two episodes so I can’t say for sure if you’ll like the rest of it. I certainly did. It combines Gondry’s style with Carrey’s ability to be silly and serious, sometimes even at the same time. He is at the center, but it is an ensemble piece not unlike SFU which I can understand you got vibes off of. This show, and BARRY, are really the best comedies I’ve seen on TV in a long time.

  8. This is quite a strange experience to read this review and the comments and still have absolutely no clue what it’s about. Even with CJ’s similarly European viewpoint to help I honestly don’t think I’ve ever heard of this guy.

    Still he sounds like a decent dude so I’m glad to hear you guys appreciate him.

  9. I watched his show as a really little kid but didn’t have much connection to him. He was such an institution that I never really thought about him until I outgrew him and then rediscovered him in college in the mid-90s. I found that the only thing that made 8:00 classes bearable was watching Mister Rogers in the morning beforehand while drinking a cup of tea. (I never liked the Neighborhood of Make Believe segments, so I’d go to the bathroom and brush my teeth during them.) I learned a lot just from observing how this gentle, deliberate man went about his business. This was well before meme were a thing so everybody I told about my Mister Rogers habit back then thought I was just a stoner. They thought it was like watching the Teletubbies or Barney or some shit. I’m glad that most people nowadays recognize that Mister Rogers was more than just a dorky outfit and a couple of corny catchphrases.

  10. I’m so glad we moved past this really quick phase from Republican right wingers who blamed My Rogers for how they thought young kids were pussies and everybody needed a participation trophy.

  11. The incredible Hulk episode! I was always hoping to see that one again every time I watched Mr. Rodgers.

    And I’m not sure about this movie, but I’d watch the Mr. T version two times!

  12. Mr Rogers’ one-dimension of niceness always made me wonder what the hell was really going on, or had gone on, in his life. And KIDDING is a funny look at what a sweet natured kids show host might look like if he had *real* emotions to struggle with, like suppressed anger and low self worth. Carrey is perfect as a sad-sack weirdo.

  13. I agree Carrey is fantastic in it, as are the rest of the cast (although I must confess that I’ve never “got” Keener). But I find the concept and approach so hackneyed and obvious, and the whole thing felt to me like something that would have sold well on DVD for two weeks in 2008 as people excitedly told each other that apparently you can swear on cable TV. But I will give further episodes a try. Some time

  14. I also really responded to Mr. Rogers as a child. Growing up in the 80’s, a lot of programming aimed at children was either too weird or too intense for me, so there was something very comforting about the deliberate pace of Mr. Rogers. An adult who generally cared about you and validated your feelings. I’d go to pre-school and Kindergarten where I was confronted by screaming children and “teachers” who were only there for the paycheck, and even at that age,knowing Mr. Rogers would be on tv when I got home made school much more bearable. A therapist for young, neurotic me.

    That said, I don’t need to see this Ready Player One-type story where Mr. Rogers is the big licensed get in a fictional universe. I hope the movie ends with the journalist heading off to interview his next subject, Mumm-Ra.

  15. I only made it through one episode of KIDDING, mostly because the topic didn’t appeal to me, but holy shit, did the low contrast instagram filter cinematography, that seems to be in every second music video these days, annoy the living fuck out of me!

  16. I was a New Zoo Review man myself.

  17. Philadelphia?! As someone from western PA, I am compelled to correct this oversight (unless he does go there in the movie for some reason). Mr Rogers was from Pittsburgh. His show was filmed at WQED studios, right around the corner from where I went to college. He kept an office in an old apartment building I lived in–I never saw him but other students did.

    Around 1997 or 1998, I attended a used record sale that was held at WQED for some reason. The vendor tables were set up on the studio floor. Many of the Neighborhood of Make Believe props were there, pushed out of the way but pretty much accessible to anyone who wanted a close look at X the Owls tree or King Friday’s castle. It was so surreal that sometimes I doubt my memories of the event.

  18. I found proof of the vinyl sale:

    (Not that anyone other than myself was doubting me.)

  19. Sorry Mike. I’ve made that switch before, too. I don’t know why. I fixed it now.

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