Runtime: 108 Minutes
Director: Marielle Heller
Writer: Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster
Stars: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Chris Cooper, Susan Kelechi Watson
Last year, audiences were asked a simple question from a documentary about an iconic symbol of goodness – Won’t you be my neighbor? Ah, yes, I’m talking about the heartfelt documentary about Fred Rogers from director Morgan Neville that won the hearts of critics and audiences, but oddly didn’t enough love to earn, or even be nominated for, many major awards. It was actually one of the most talked about and head scratching snubs of last year, however, it seems like Mr. Rogers will find another chance for award recognition this year as director Marielle Heller crafts a heart-warming and heartfelt film that displays the raw power of good that comes from the iconic figure with “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”.
Rather than just simply be about Rogers or even about his show, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, the film is really about journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) and the relationship he develops with Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks). Lloyd considers himself a broken person with his cynical view of the world and toxic relationship with his father (Chris Cooper) and isn’t even slightly excited when he gets the chance to interview Mr. Rogers. Although Lloyd can barely take him seriously at first, through the friendship he begins to develop with Mr. Rogers, Lloyd begins to tackle his inner demons and work on the relationships in his life.
“Marielle Heller crafts a heart-warming and heartfelt film that displays the raw power of good that comes from the iconic figure.”
Last year, Heller delivered one of my favorite films of the year with “Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ as she made Lee Israel’s crass and cynical attitude an easy and endearing aspect that made you sympathize with her issues. With this film, she struggles to utilize these same aspects to create a more complex connection and to make Lloyd likeable enough to connect to. Now, while I understand this film being based on a true story and I assume what Heller shows here is authentic to that, it just takes a while to sympathize with Lloyd because of how opposite he is to Rogers. Knowing what we know about Rogers and the symbol he’s become; every time Lloyd just shrugs his kindness off or treats him like a joke it just makes it harder to like him. Even the way his cynical nature affects his relationship with his wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), and other people in his life makes him hard to like for most of the film. However, maybe that’s the point.
The film is essentially all about redemption and Heller does a great job making it as genuine and real as possible. As the film went on and Lloyd started to face the issues in his life more head-on and started to treat Rogers like a real person, it becomes much easier to understand his hatred and get behind him as he starts to open up. The entire last act with Lloyd is actually very touching and the performances that come from Rhys and Cooper are great throughout. For all of the times that Lloyd might have annoyed me or made me frustrated with his negativity, the film gives him the perfect kind of redemption that makes his story so perfect in showing how infectious Rogers really is.
The best performance, to no surprise, comes from Hanks as he’s so infectiously full of good vibes and genuine love and care that it’s almost as if Rogers is back on-screen. From singing the iconic theme song to all of the interactions he has with everyone; he truly brings out the heartwarming nature that Rogers is known for that will easily imprint a smile on anyone’s face and tear to anyone’s eye. The scenes with his wife, Joanne (Maryann Plunkett), are easily some of the most heartwarming as the two share a genuine connection and she is one of the many people that show how influential Rogers is. There’re also some great scenes that Heller brings to life of other people, both in studio and on the street, that genuinely love Rogers and his influence plays a big part into Lloyd understanding him more. I do wish that the film focused a little more on his relationship with Lloyd and there’re are even times where I think Rogers comes off as hokey as Lloyd thinks he does. Even some of the ways Lloyd is influenced by Rogers, like with him having fantasies or following Rogers even though he clearly isn’t there, are little dumb and conventional. However, Hanks’ performance is so great that is easy to overlook these issues and become enveloped into the genuinely sweet and human nature he brings into the film.
“Hanks [is] so infectiously full of good vibes and genuine love and care that it’s almost as if Rogers is back on-screen. From singing the iconic theme song to all of the interactions he has with everyone; he truly brings out the heartwarming nature that Rogers is known for.”
Where Heller really shines though is recreating the atmosphere and tone of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood and utilizing the iconic show to tell its story. In reality, the film is told in the same way as the show with the story playing out like an episode that focuses on Lloyd. In most cases, this would come off like a lazy excuse for nostalgic storytelling, but Heller utilizes the great performance from Hanks and the iconic look and feel of the show to create a very impactful story. Every time the show cuts back in to let Rogers reflect on Lloyd or even the other characters, like Daniel Striped Tiger and King Friday the 13th, grace the screen with their presence, it doesn’t come off like a nostalgic moment, but more of a delving into Lloyd through the show. Not to mention, the use of the iconic town sets was a nice way to transition from scene to scene.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is the kind of film that would make Rogers proud as it’s exactly what it should be – a pleasant stroll with an old friend full of humbling satisfaction and meaningful conversation about people. Although Rogers had passed away back in 2003, he can at least rest peacefully knowing that not one, but two films have continued to spread his loving sense of kindness and understanding and while “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” was a snubbed last year, the same, hopefully, won’t happen here and Hanks and Heller will be top names in the awards conversation.