A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood Review

A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood
1998. Tough-nosed magazine profile writer Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is sent to interview beloved children’s TV presenter Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks). Yet as their meetings progress, the genial Rogers turns the tables on Vogel and starts gently interrogating the dark areas in the journo’s life, chiefly his estranged relationship with his dad (Chris Cooper).

by Ian Freer |
Published on
Release Date:

31 Jan 2020

Original Title:

A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood

There’s something potentially too on the nose about casting Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers. Hollywood’s nicest man playing the iconic children’s TV host who schooled a nation in kindness, decency and humanity seemingly writes itself. Only in Marielle Heller’s hands, it isn’t. Based on Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire cover story in which the journalist set out to write a character assassination on Rogers and ended up with invaluable life lessons, Heller’s third feature pays tribute to Rogers’ homespun goodness but finds original, less obvious notes through deft delicacy, winning weirdness and zero sentimentality.

A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood

With her previous film, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Heller was adept at finding chinks of light in a dark, misanthropic writer, and so she proves again here. Junod surrogate Lloyd Vogel (Rhys) is an award-winning journalist renowned for giving his subjects a rough ride. To the chagrin of his smart, supportive wife (Susan Kelechi Watson) he has an angry, dysfunctional relationship with his dad Jerry (Cooper), to the extent that Lloyd punches him out at a family wedding. When Esquire is putting together a feature on American heroes, the only interviewee who will grant him an audience is children’s television presenter Fred Rogers (Hanks). What follows is an ode to the power of gentle conversation as Rogers defuses Vogel’s abrasive questions and begins an interview of his own, getting the writer to open up and slowly, believably heal.

Tom Hanks, all bushy eyebrows and comfy cardies, nails not only the warmth but also Rogers’ underlying intelligence.

The story arc — open-hearted optimist wins over the disheartened cynic — is obvious and potentially trite, but Heller, writers Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue and cast find the dimensions in both parties, especially Rogers: a telling moment sees him on his own in a TV studio softly playing piano until hammering down on the keys, an expression of inchoate anger. Keying into the handcrafted quality of her debut, The Diary Of A Teenage Girl, Heller brings Mister Rogers’ worldview to life, creating establishing shots out of train-set architecture, spinning a Michel Gondry-esque dream sequence in which a miniature Vogel (with rabbit ears) befriends Rogers’ puppets, and framing the whole film as an episode of Rogers’ show. That these flights of fancy sit within both the tête-à-têtes and Vogel reconnecting with his damaged past is testament to Heller’s skill with tone.

She is helped by two terrific performances. Rhys, with a burning-eyed intensity, perfectly renders a man who can’t quite make a leap to forgiveness; Hanks, all bushy eyebrows and comfy cardies, nails not only the warmth but also Rogers’ underlying intelligence — Rogers’ philosophies are more than just Facebook slogans; it’s a wisdom under-pinned by hard-earned realities and Hanks sells it beautifully. The film’s standout scene sees Rogers invite Vogel to share a minute’s silence, a chance “to remember all the people who loved you into being”. Moving and true, it’s Heller’s exquisite film in a nutshell.

It could easily be twee twaddle, but A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood is a nuanced, formally playful delight, a perfectly pitched and played ode to goodness. All hail Marielle Heller.
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