“IT’S A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD”: Better living through kindness

Mister Rogers (Tom Hanks) meets journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) in TriStar Pictures’ A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD.


Published November 22, 2019 by Robert W. Butler at Butler’s Cinema Scene

My rating: B+ (Opens wide on Nov. 22) | 108 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Movie trailers are a hugely effective way of lying. One should always approach them with the same caution brought to political postings on Facebook.

So my tearful response to the trailer for “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” with Tom Hanks as the iconic PBS kiddie show star Fred Rogers, left me wary.  Could the actual movie really be that moving, or would it fall apart in a morass of manipulation and sentimentality?

Good news, Mr. Rogers fans.  “Beautiful Day” sidesteps virtually all the landmines in its path and delivers a funny, touching and uplifting story about a man who was too good to be true.

Fred Rogers was the subject last year of an exhaustive documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”; happily director Marielle Heller (“Diary of a Teenage Girl,” “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) and screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harvester (working from Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire profile of Rogers) don’t turn “Beautiful Day” into another retelling of the famous man’s life. In fact, one could argue that Fred Rogers is a supporting character here.

The film centers on Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a (fictional) investigative journalist whose specialty is digging up dirt on his subjects. He’s tough and analytical and cynical…and appalled when his editor assigns him to write a 500-word piece — essentially a long caption –on Mr. Rogers. (“Play nice,” she urges him.)

He doesn’t want the assignment. His wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson of TV’s “This Is Us”) sees disaster looming: “Please don’t ruin my childhood.”

Lloyd has more than a little baggage from his own childhood.  Early on we see his encounter at a wedding with his father Jerry (Chris Cooper), whom he hasn’t seen for years; it almost immediately devolves into a father-son brawl.

Fifteen years earlier, when Lloyd’s mother became fatally ill, the philandering Jerry abandoned her and his two children. Now Lloyd carries a manhole cover-sized grudge. When Lloyd first interviews Fred Rogers (Hanks) at the Pittsburgh TV station where the show is taped, the evidence of his Oedipal issues is all over his bruised face.

Matthew Rhys stars in TriStar Pictures’ A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD.

Almost from Day One Lloyd views Rogers with suspicion.  Even when he finally comes to accept that Rogers really believes in his mission — to give children positive ways to deal with their feelings — he insists on digging deeper.  He wants to show the schism between Mr. Rogers the character and Fred Rogers the performer.

Which is where Hanks’ superlative performance kicks into high gear.  Yeah, he’s got the Rogers mannerisms down — the goofy grin, the calm voice, the cardigan sweater and the the changing-into-the-sneakers bit.  Physically the performance is a triumph of impersonation (and the film effortlessly inserts Hanks into video of vintage Rogers broadcasts).

But it’s the spiritual side of Rogers that Hanks quietly, deftly mines. Some of the film’s most memorable moments are silent…they come after Lloyd poses a leading question and Rogers regards him with a mixture of curiosity and bafflement. To Mr. Rogers duplicity is as foreign as a Parisian whorehouse.

Even more perplexing, from the journalist’s point of view, is that Rogers insists on asking him questions — sometimes through the persona of his hand puppet, Daniel the Tiger. In the course of profiling the TV star it is Lloyd’s battered psyche that is revealed, massaged and, ultimately healed.

Now all this could be insufferably sappy. Anyone who’s ever been to the movies can smell a Vogel family reunion looming in the last reel.

But “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” has just enough editorial distance to navigate the narrative shoals. The slightly cheesy Lionel-Train-ish tiny town that was a regular prop on Rogers’ TV show here becomes a character in itself, joined by a pleasantly childlike model of New York City (where Lloyd lives).

We see the reactions of Rogers’ producer and crew, who adore the guy but can’t help rolling their eyes at his schedule-busting digressions and improvisations.

Not everything works. There’s a misguided dream sequence in which Lloyd finds himself shrunk to hand-puppet size, sporting bunny ears and living on the “Mr. Rodgers” set. Ditto for an imaginary episode of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” in which Fred Rogers uses a photo of Lloyd to teach his young audience about repressed emotions.

But when it’s gliding along at peak efficiency — which is most of the time — “Beautiful Day” makes a heartfelt case for emotional transparency.

In one scene Mr. Rogers meets with fans — adults and children — who unload on him their traumas and fears.  Lloyd is aghast, but instead of misery Rogers (who was, after all, an ordained minister) sees the hopeful possibilities.

“All these people lined up to tell their problems,” he says. “Isn’t it wonderful, that bravery?”

Yes, Mr. Rogers. Yes it is.

| Robert W. Butler

Read the original review and more reviews at Butler’s Cinema Scene

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Robert W. Butler for 41 years reviewed films for the Kansas City Star. In May 2011 he was downsized.

He couldn’t take the hint.

OKAY, so here’s the deal. I write mostly about movies. One good thing about no longer writing for the paper is that I’m free to ignore the big dumb Hollywood turkeys that don’t interest me. So don’t expect every blessed release to be written about here. Many films aren’t worth the effort. Besides, at my age it’s not the $8. It’s the two hours.

UPDATE: OCTOBER, 2014: Well, here’s an interesting twist. The Star wants me back as a freelance film reviewer!!! Apparently enough time has passed that they cannot be accused of firing me so that they can rehire me at a fraction of my original pay (I gather the federal government frowns upon that practice.) So from now on I will probably be reviewing a movie a week for the newspaper.