A Beautiful Day in The Neighborhood
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Run Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
Stars: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Chris Cooper, Susan Kelechi Watson
Writers: Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster
Director: Marielle Heller
We live in mean times. So mean, in fact, that these days the meanest of the mean boast openly of their meanness. If you’re not at least a little mean, we’re told, no one will take you seriously.
It’s especially true in the movies. The meanest curs in Marvel comic movies are invariably the films’ most interesting characters. Disney has spun off a whole genre of villain movies that seeks to explain just why those evildoers are so mean and absolve them of their meanness. And the Joker? Mean and loving it.
You know what I mean?
So what are we to do with A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a film with not a mean millisecond in its length; a film that celebrates kindness, forgiveness, compassion, faith, and innocence with reckless abandon?
Here’s what you do: You embrace it. You treasure it. You take your family to it and drive your friends to the theater door, if necessary.
Because if A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood does not move you on some level, you should check your pulse. And double-check your humanity.
The big surprise of this film, based on a true story, is that the most famous figure in it is actually a supporting character. Sure, Tom Hanks’ portrayal of Fred Rogers — TV’s kindly Mister Rogers to generations of preschoolers — is the main attraction here. Hanks’ portrayal of Rogers, whose Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood eased the childhood angst of untold millions of toddlers, is a walking Beatitude: the meek, the merciful, the peacemaker. And like the real Fred, the character draws power from those attributes, the power to forgive where others can’t — and the power to inspire others to forgive themselves.
But the central character here is actually a magazine writer named Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a fictional version of Tom Junod, on whose Esquire article the script is based. We meet him as a hard-driving investigative reporter whose specialty is stripping public figures naked to reveal their secret foibles in the most vicious manner possible. He’s also a mess: a hard-drinking, short-tempered cynic who sees his subjects as raw meat and his wife (Susan Kelechi Watson) as little more than an affectionate inconvenience. Towards his father (Chris Cooper) he harbors undisguised hatred with a rage that explodes into a fistfight at a wedding.
Lloyd is, of course, appalled when his editor assigns him a puff piece on Fred Rogers, and he approaches the job like it’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to him.
Then, in a Pittsburgh television studio, Lloyd falls almost immediately under Mister Rogers’ spell. Director Marielle Heller dispenses with any sense of resistance on Lloyd’s part, because quite simply by all accounts this is precisely the way Fred Rogers affected people. The most jaded of visitors, simply by being pulled ever so slightly in Fred Rogers’ orbit, felt the warmth of kindness that he radiated.
But that doesn’t mean Lloyd is comfortable with this feeling. The meatiest passages of A Beautiful Day in The Neighborhood come as Lloyd’s soul is troubled by his repeated encounters with a truly selfless man. Fred doesn’t just project kindness to Lloyd; he invites the writer into his own life and in the process begins to infill the voids in Lloyd’s soul.
That’s the power of A Beautiful Day in The Neighborhood: Not for one second does the film deny the dynamism of anger, the strangely irresistible appeal of cynicism. Here, though, those twin demons run full-speed into a wall of charity and acceptance, and although the collision is momentarily messy, in the end there’s no contest: The Golden Rule doesn’t just repel the Law Of The Jungle, it absorbs it, dissolves it, neutralizes it.
Like Fred Rogers himself, A Beautiful Day in The Neighborhood swarms with gentle wonders, most memorably the film’s establishing shots of Pittsburgh and Manhattan. They’re not the usual stock footage, but instead fanciful constructions, extensions of the miniature neighborhood that opened each episode of Fred Rogers’ show.
Significantly, A Beautiful Day in The Neighborhood never shies away from the essential truth at the core of Fred Rogers’ goodness: As an ordained Presbyterian minister, his view of the inherent value of all people, young and old, good and bad, is rooted in his Biblical understanding of the nature of God. One of the film’s most mesmerizing moments is one of its quietest as Fred, a dedicated swimmer, does laps in the local pool, praying for each individual in his life by name.
As the troubled writer, Rhys invites us along for his midlife awakening. His face at the start seems set in wax, fixed by anger and barely conceived rage. Slowly, he softens in the warmth of Fred Rogers’ humanity. By the end he seems like a prisoner released, liberated by the realization that although he is now a better person, even in his most degenerate state he was, in the eyes of one good man, of infinite value. Rhys, the galvanizing star of TV’s The Americans, overplays neither Lloyd’s misery nor his revelation; his is a miraculously subliminal performance. As Lloyd’s defensive and flawed father, Cooper masterfully summons the classic parental lament: “Where did I go wrong? Oh, yeah…”
You may well find a tear leaking from A Beautiful Day’s first frames, and the weepies will most likely reassert themselves through the beatific conclusion. And as you leave the theater, you just might imagine the hand of a certain red-sweatered fellow on your sleeve, gently whispering into your ear, “It’s okay to feel this way.”
Featured image: Matthew Rhys and Tom Hanks in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Photo by Lacey Terrell. Copyright ©2019 CTMG, Inc. All rights reserved.
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now