Marielle Heller’s biopic about children’s TV host Fred Rogers is a graceful look at patience and loving-kindness
A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD (Marielle Heller). 107 minutes. Opens Friday (November 22). See listing. Rating: NNNN
There was something special about Fred Rogers: a stillness, a compassion, a free-floating sense of goodness that stayed true for all the years of his life. Look up any of his television appearances and you can see someone doing his best to anticipate the needs of his audience – whether that was a small child or a member of Congress – and address them directly. He was there to help people, and he did.
I don’t have any religious beliefs, but I believe in people. And in the last couple of years I’ve been wondering if maybe Rogers was the messiah and nobody noticed.
It’s a question that floats over both Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which celebrated the mission of the beloved children’s television host last year, and Marielle Heller’s new biopic, A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, which offers an interpretation of Rogers’s enduring grace by America’s current beatific father figure Tom Hanks. It’s never voiced, or even framed. It’s just apparent: this is what a truly good person does. This is how a truly good person lives.
It makes a certain kind of sense that Heller would follow Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a film about self-loathing and self-destruction, with one about patience and loving-kindness. (Again, not a phrase people throw around a lot outside of worship, but it feels appropriate.) A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood is a fiction about a truth, turning Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire cover profile of Rogers into a meditation on the man’s character.
For this version, screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster replace Junod with the fictional Lloyd Vogel, played by The Americans’ Matthew Rhys. He’s a husband and new father whose little puff piece on Rogers becomes a life-changing encounter that helps him resolve his own childhood issues, and be a better person. Yes, that’s a story we’ve seen a hundred times before, particularly in the biopic genre when done well, it can humanize an icon when done badly, that icon can become a supporting character in his or her own story.
I’d compare it to Green Book, but that would give the wrong impression where that film was a mediocrity elevated by two very committed actors, this one works all the way through. It’s a parable, and it’s kind of wonderful.
What’s remarkable about the film is that it makes Vogel part of Rogers’s world, rather than the other way around. The entire movie is presented as an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, in grainy 4:3 video, with Hanks’s Rogers entering his familiar set, putting on his cardigan and slippers and talking directly to us. The story’s artifice becomes essential rather than a distraction.
Hanks doesn’t try to impersonate Rogers, but instead gives us his impression of the man in the truest sense of the word: he captures Rogers’s manner, the slower way of speaking and the gentle smile that was never too far from his face. He doesn’t look or sound much like Rogers, really, but within minutes that’s simply not an issue. This is Fred Rogers. He has a friend named Lloyd, who’s having kind of a rough time. Maybe we should meet him.
And we do, the frame expanding to a wider ratio (while still being just low-res enough to look like it might have been shot in the late 90s, a trick I would someday love to hear cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes explain) to introduce us to Lloyd: a decent enough guy, but a little lost in his own life. He has baggage. He’s cynical, and he kind of goes through the motions with Fred when they first talk on the phone.
But Fred hears something in Lloyd. Fred wants to connect. And so Lloyd goes out to Pittsburgh to visit Rogers at his studio, and they spend a little more time together, and then they just keep talking and connecting. And eventually Fred becomes an active force in Lloyd’s life, just because he can.
There’s this one moment – you’ve probably seen it in the trailers – where Fred and Lloyd are on the subway in New York, and a handful of schoolchildren recognize Fred and start singing his theme song to him.
It’s a perfect little scene of reciprocated love, almost magical, and some of that is because Hanks just stands there and takes it in with grace, and a smile, and a little humility – the way I am sure Fred Rogers did, and the way I’m sure Hanks himself has done in other situations, because he knows what it’s like to be that famous and that loved. He wouldn’t admit it, of course, but then neither would Fred Rogers.