On a normal day (remember those?) “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” would be almost too painfully pure to get through without a few happy tears. Then let’s factor in the appearance of none other than national treasure Tom Hanks starring as national treasure Fred “Mister” Rogers and — in case you are Jared Leto on a meditation retreat and missed the news — the fact that Hanks is currently suffering from our international ailment, which makes the sight of his face all the more poignant.
I’m not sure Hanks looks that much like Fred Rogers, and I’m not sure it matters that much because he fills the role emotionally on screen and in real life. This film gives us the story of emotionally damaged journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), who must interview Fred for Esquire magazine and, being a tough, bitter guy, bristles against a puff piece. Fulfilling the beloved trope of difficult artists getting yelled at by their editors, Lloyd is told that he has such a bad rep that Fred is the only one who would talk to him.
Lloyd’s main personal problems revolve around his relationship with his dad (Chris Cooper), who left Lloyd and his sister to care for their dying mother when they were young. Lloyd, who has just become a father himself, has not forgiven his father, and they get into a fist fight at a family wedding.
Against this personal crisis, Lloyd meets the nicest, most caring man on earth, Tom Hanks, I mean Fred Rogers, and throughout the film, Lloyd has a dream that he himself is on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” his bruised face on a cardboard display for Fred’s young viewers. It is sort of perverse and interesting, and I’m surprised that Marielle Heller, the director who also made the brittle, dark comedy “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” did not lean even further into the oddness.
Moments like Lloyd imagining himself as a tiny puppet in Fred’s set, with his wife as a character, redeemed some of the more emotionally contrived ideas, and a funeral is depicted using the familiar little sets that “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” used as their establishing neighborhood shots. It’s weird and magical. I would have liked more if it.
However, the realistic parts are perfectly acted even if they are somewhat predictable. Cooper plays the estranged dad and is terrific and a great addition. Rhys and his wife (Susan Kelechi Watson) have particularly believable and well-written marital problems. Rhys underplayed his angry character nicely. His skepticism towards Fred Rogers feels well-founded, and Hanks’ portrayal of Fred made me ask myself if I had ever noticed a slight edge of creepiness to the children’s host.
This film explores the fear that Fred was too good to be true and the plot with the journalist helps deflect from an overdose of his personality. Hanks never gives Fred a crack in the facade, but he shows us the pressures he embraced as part of the job he took on. Lloyd, the cranky journalist, stands in for the audience with questions about how and why he does what he does. He prods him about his family. Lloyd, whose own terrible father drives the main plot of the film, still does not see having Fred for a dad as a thing to envy. He points out how difficult it must have been for his sons, and Fred admits they didn’t like it very much.
By the time the film reaches its warm, fuzzy conclusion, Hanks has not just given us a faithful recreation of a beloved figure. He stares into the camera, and his placid, calm love is not just real, it is actually defiant. Lloyd didn’t always like it, and as a viewer, neither did I. It took the entire film to realize how powerful an experience it was.
If you are feeling fragile right now, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is emotional and moving, but not shocking or overly sad. So, you can weep gentle tears as you, exhorted by Hanks, think of the ones you love and of Hanks himself. Since we are all sitting tight in our own neighborhoods right now, this is a beautiful way to spend a day.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is currently available to rent.
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