Review: A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood

30 January 2020

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood arrives in the midst of yet another tepid Oscar season, squashed within a crowded line-up of adapted true stories, including the downfall of Roger Ailes (Bombshell [2020]), the denouement of Judy Garland’s career (Judy [2019]), and some cars going vroom vroom very fast (Ford v Ferrari [2019]). Biopic fatigue is as bad as it gets this time of year – so it’s with no small mercy that director Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl [2015]) has delivered such a uniquely tender character piece that does justice to Fred Rogers’ inspiring real-life legacy. Of course, this should hardly be a surprise for those of you who caught her previous film, last year’s under-appreciated Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2019), which provided deliciously wry but compassionate insight into Lee Israel’s real-life con artistry. Heller knows how to make a proper meal out of Oscar bait.

The film presents itself as essentially a feature-length episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood, opening with fuzzy broadcast footage of Fred Rogers (a pitch-perfect Tom Hanks) re-enacting the opening to the beloved children’s educational show. The focus of this special broadcast, as it turns out, is Lloyd Vogel – a hard-hitting journalist struggling with the re-emergence of his neglectful father, who has been assigned to interview the enigmatic TV personality for an Esquire issue on heroes. The show-within-a-film conceit allows for A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood to occasionally indulge in the loveable toybox style of Mister Rogers’ world, with each establishing shot portrayed through miniature sets in line with the show’s setting, and a later dream sequence set in the titular neighbourhood that reminds us just how alienating it is to confront our childhood.

For those of us on this continent who grew up singing along with comfortably-dressed bananas instead of gallivanting around Rogers’ pint-sized neighbourhood, the nostalgia trip may be somewhat distant at first. Nevertheless, the film serves as a warm, accessible introduction to the enchanting world of Mister Rogers – although if you are the diligent type, the breakout Sundance doco Won’t You Be My Neighbour? (2018) makes for joyous background viewing on the subject, and the profile on which this film is based is as delightful as it is thorough.

In real life, as in the film, Rogers is the kind of figure whose unconditional generosity and kindness places him at an esteem typically reserved for the likes of Jesus Christ. He found the intrinsic value in each child and adult, even when they were cast aside by others or even themselves, and tirelessly worked towards a more caring, loving world. Despite extensive digging, his humble veneer has been impossible to smear with even a sprinkling of dirt. He’s proof that people, even public figures, can simply be good without any qualifiers, quietly shattering the notion that your fave need be problematic.

Were this an entirely fictional film, I’d almost be complaining that his character was simply too virtuous to be believable. But Heller, and the screenplay (written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster) are shrewd enough to bring him down to earth. His wife, Joanne (Maryann Plunkett), resists when Vogel asks her what it’s like to be married to a saint; “If you think of him as a saint, then his way of being is unattainable.” Rogers is similarly deflective when approached by Vogel’s blunt questioning, choosing to redirect the focus back onto his troubled interviewer. While it’s explained that Rogers finds himself drawn to those in need, the mention of a previous troubled relationship with one of his own sons is implied to inform the empathetic counsel he provides Lloyd.

To many, the casting of Tom Hanks as the world’s nicest man was practically a foregone conclusion. Despite their distant relation, Hanks neither looks nor sounds very much like Rogers, but nonetheless manages to superbly recreate his cosy allure, and his wide-eyed fascination with all things harbouring a soul. Matthew Rhys is never less than a compelling, handsome presence, but his protagonist often struggles to distinguish himself from the long, long line of sad asshole writers in cinema. Each moment spent with Hank’s Rogers is so perfectly judged, so delicately woven that the rest of the film drags when Vogel drifts out of Fred’s orbit and back up his own arse.

Considering the current state of our infantilised film culture, in which nostalgia has become the primary form of capital, it was only a matter of time before someone got around to making a Fred Rogers biopic. But while endlessly re-heated scraps of IP from Star Wars to the latest Terminator reboot are crassly designed to pander to the inner child in everyone, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood confronts us with a difficult truth: we are not as distant from our past selves as we’d like to be. And that’s okay.

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