Sunday, November 24, 2019

Movie Review: "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" (2019)

Director: Marielle Heller
Year: 2019
Rating: PG
Running Time: 1 hour, 48 minutes

Journalist Lloyd Vogel is tasked to do a profile piece on famed children's show host, Mr. Rogers. What starts as a puff piece turns into something more when Fred helps Lloyd navigate his own feelings of stored anger towards his father.

In "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood," Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) gives a speech at the National Magazine Awards.
In "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood," Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) gives a speech at the National Magazine Awards. (Image Source)
Not all heroes wear capes. Sometimes, they wear cardigans. "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" is directed by Marielle Heller, who is known for directing movies like "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" and "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" The screenplay is written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, who worked together on "Maleficent: Mistress of Evil." The film is loosely inspired by the Esquire Magazine article "Can You Say...Hero?" by Tom Junod. The story is about a cynical but talented writer named Lloyd Vogel (Mathew Rhys), who is assigned to do a profile on Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) for the magazine's issue on real-life heroes. Lloyd thinks the puff piece is below his talents but is forced to do it anyway. Because of his interview with Fred, a man who has spent decades helping children understand their feelings about life's biggest ups and downs, Lloyd starts to get some insight on how to deal with his own emotions about being a new father, about being a good husband to his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), and towards his father Jerry (Chris Cooper), whom he had a falling out with long ago but has recently come back into his life.
Lloyd (Matthew Rhys) and Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) eat lunch in a New York City restaurant in the film "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood."
Lloyd (Matthew Rhys) and Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) eat lunch in a New York City restaurant in the film "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood." (Image Source)
People hoping that "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" will be a typical life-to-death biopic about Mister Rogers may wind up disappointed because that's not what this film is. If you're interested in watching that movie, we suggest you see the incredible 2018 documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor?"

BigJ and I are going to disagree about most of our thoughts about "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood," so let's get the positives out there first. This is what I'd call a biopic-light, and what BigJ would call a fictional family melodrama that casts Mister Rogers as the hero in someone else's story. Matthew Rhys plays Lloyd Vogel, who is the main character of the film. "A Beautiful Day" gives the audience an up-close and personal view of Fred Rogers, who he was as a person, his philosophies on life, how he helped people deal with their feelings, and how he devoted his attention to specific individuals to make their lives a little bit better in whatever tiny way he could. These sentiments are brought to life superbly by the incomparable Tom Hanks. Though it is not a completely transformative performance, Hanks easily embodies Fred's soft-spoken ways and his ability to condense life's greatest conundrums into digestible nuggets of hope and virtue and help. Another astonishing thing about "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" is the production designs and intricate "Mister Rogers's Neighborhood"-esque sets. The buildings and backgrounds and cars and trolleys and scene transitions are constructed to look like they came straight out of an episode of Fred's show, and it is exquisite, imaginative, and feels oh so right for a project like this. We also enjoyed how the aspect ratio changed when Hanks was speaking into the camera as if he were recording an episode of Mister Rogers's classic PBS show.

A lot about "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" really bothered BigJ, and he wound up thinking this movie was, disappointingly, a mixed bag. He didn't care for the way any of the non-"Mister Rogers's Neighborhood" scenes were shot. He thought they looked low budget, more "made-for-TV," less "well-funded feature film." He also thought a lot of the dialogue felt inauthentic. Apart from quotes that came directly from Rogers's television show or the interviews he gave, BigJ believed it felt too manufactured. He disliked the Vogel family melodrama, most of which didn't actually happen in the first place. He resented that the writers and filmmakers felt the need to take the focus off of Mister Rogers because such a pearly person like Fred couldn't possibly be a fascinating enough subject to captivate audiences on his own. They had to inject manufactured, fictional drama into the story to make it seem more compelling because a story about a kind, gentle soul who did a lot of good in the world just wasn't enough, and what we wound up with was another predictable Hollywood narrative about a sad-sack dealing with his daddy issues.

I liked "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" quite a bit more than BigJ did. I really enjoyed Lloyd Vogel's character arc and thought it showed a natural progression that was caused by the innate goodness of Fred Rogers. Whether Lloyd Vogel was Tom Junod, whether Tom Junod was Lloyd Vogel, or whether Lloyd Vogel was real or not doesn't matter much to me. It's all about the relentless positivity and insight and wisdom and virtue that Fred Rogers put into a fractured society begging for a hero. Lloyd started out as someone who had a cynical outlook about the world but was transformed over the time he spent with Fred Rogers. He was closed off, hardened, and angry, but learned to confront his feelings, to face them head-on, and to deal with his issues in more positive ways because of the time he spent with Fred. I felt a close proximity to Lloyd, the struggles he faced with his father, and how he had to learn to forgive him for the indefensible things he did. It made me think about my own life in ways I probably should address in a therapy type of situation (why go to therapy when you have a podcast?!), that the hurt, the anger, and the resentment and stresses I have felt are valid, but it's how I choose to react to those situations that matters. Lloyd faced a choice to stuff it down and be in for a lifetime of hurt that would negatively impact his life, his career, his family ties, his relationships with his wife and newborn son, etc. Meeting Mister Rogers helped him brave those issues to potentially mend what had been so irreparably broken for years. We all need a Mister Rogers to guide us towards the path of good, of learning, of healing, of strength, and of understanding that being sad and mad are perfectly normal reactions to the upsetting things that life will throw at you. Matthew Rhys captures the face of a person in deep anguish so incredibly well that it felt realistic to me. I instantly felt my chest crumple inward (kind of like Ralph on the Valentine's day episode of "The Simpsons") as specific plot points were discussed because I have felt the same way in my soul that Lloyd did. The scene where Fred asks Lloyd, "who loved you into the person you are today?" and the film literally stops for a full minute to make the audience ruminate on the answer? That scene mattered to me. This movie impacted me in ways I didn't think it would, and it was equal parts fulfilling and heartbreaking. It might not be my favorite film of 2019, but I thought it was pretty dang great.
Tom Hanks stars as icon Fred Rogers in "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood."
Tom Hanks stars as icon Fred Rogers in "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood." (Image Source)
"A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" may have split us, but we have a feeling most people will enjoy this movie because of Tom Hanks's excellent performance as a man who put so much genuine good into our world.

My Rating: 7.5/10
BigJ's Rating: 6/10
IMDB's Rating: 7.7/10
RT Rating: 96%
Do we recommend this movie: Sure, why not?

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