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.
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.)