There are a cavalcade of films about real-life famous people. Biopics are some of the most sure-fire ways to get attention from the Academy Awards, just look at last year’s Best Actor winner Rami Malek for Bohemian Rhapsody. Most of them follow a played out formula: a brief prologue at the end of their career, flashback to childhood and then follow their rise, fall, and rise back to where we started. The more successful ones tend to focus on one or a few specific moments in the person’s life in order to investigate the person, such as Brian Williams with Love and Mercy or Steve Jobs with, well, Steve Jobs. The thing even a lot of those films get wrong is that these famous people obviously did a lot of things we remember and, hopefully, like, and they want to depict that they did them. It does not take a lot of skill to simply recount the events in a person’s life that could easily be just read off on a Wikipedia article. It is an entirely different thing to make a movie about why and how these people mattered.
Director Marielle Heller, a director I have been slightly cold on with films like Can You Ever Forgive Me?, takes exactly this approach with Fred Rogers, better known to us with the title Mr., for her latest A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. This is an invigorating and extremely emotional tale of not just what Mr. Rogers did but how he truly affected people in how they process the hardships life throws out at them. The reason it is so successful is that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood may star one of the greatest movie stars of all time in Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers, but it is not about him. It is about Esquire writer Lloyd Vogel (based on Esquire writer Tom Junod), here played by The Americans star and wine-loving Welshman Matthew Rhys.
Lloyd does not know how to deal with the anger and fear inside him. He is a workaholic journalist, which is a problem considering he has a new baby at home with his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), and he feels much more comfortable chasing a story than being a father. He has his own father issues of his own since his own dad (Chris Copper) abandoned him and his sister (Tammy Blanchard) as their mother was on her death bed with terminal cancer, and he decides to show up at the sister’s wedding to try and get back into Lloyd’s life, which at first comes to physical blows. His editor assigns him a puff-piece profile on Mr. Rogers for an Esquire issue on heroes that he is very resistant to take on.
While this in and of itself may sound a tad bit formulaic, and on some level it is, the structure of the film is as if it is an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood with forgiveness being the topic. Every establishing shot is of a model rather than a real place. There’s even a Picture Picture segment on how a magazine is made. Couching it in this format gives us the chance to really concentrate on every part of Lloyd’s inner-psyche and how to best deal with it. Meanwhile, you as an audience member are considering the same questions and thoughts Mr. Rogers is giving Lloyd for your own life. The specifics of your life could be totally different than Lloyd’s, but the ideas and concepts he is dealing with are totally universal. One scene, in particular, where Mr. Rogers asks Lloyd to do an exercise in a diner is particularly poignant.
With The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Heller would go into flights of fancy, using animation of drawings of the main character to show what is going on in her head. That device never felt seamlessly integrated into the film in the way it should. The melding of the television program and the real world here is expertly done. Whenever we see clips from a show, they look like archival footage, even though it is clearly Tom Hanks and not the real Fred Rogers in them. Her ability to never make things entirely truthful and emotionally honest without ever dipping her toe into sentimentality astounded me.
Tom Hanks embodies the gentile spirit of Mr. Rogers perfectly. He doesn’t look or sound exactly like him at all, but it really doesn’t matter. As long as he has the ability to communicate ideas like Mr. Rogers, that is the key to making his performance sing. Rhys will not lauded in the same way from awards bodies as I’m sure Hanks will, but he is really the one holding this film together. A character that could easily be a cipher feels like a fully fleshed out human being, and his struggle to completely integrate the teachings of Mr. Rogers into his life is wonderful to watch.
Last year, Morgan Neville gave us the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, which was a sort of cataloguing of events. A very good one with some emotional reflection, but mostly a catalogue. I was worried A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood could feel completely redundant in light of that film. Thankfully, Heller and company crafted something unique and powerful in the “Based on a true story” genre. This is not a movie about Mr. Rogers. This is a movie about how to be a better, healthier human being on this planet, not just to each other but to ourselves as well.
Categories: New Releases