Current Issue #488

Film Review:
A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood

This gorgeously moving character drama from director Marielle Heller features an expertly observed performance by Tom Hanks as US children’s television icon Fred Rogers.

Like Heller’s previous pic, the more darkly funny Can You Ever Forgive Me?, this is drawn from fact and, like most biopics, quite a lot has been altered and composited, and yet it comes with the blessing of Junod and the estate of the late lamented Fred Rogers.

From a decade-old script by co-writers and co-producers Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue, based on Tom Junod’s original Esquire article Can You Say… Hero?, it also demonstrates Heller’s interest in characters in crisis and transition, and her ability to underplay scenes of powerful emotion with perfect subtlety.

Ah, Fred Rogers (1928 – 2003). A towering figure in American television and popular culture due to his incarnations of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the self-effacing fellow was on TV for decades and famous enough to be gently mocked on The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live, while clips of the show are all over YouTube and it’s also worth looking for Morgan Neville’s excellent 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. And yet, he’s not exactly well-known outside the US.

As if to emphasise the fictional aspects of the tale, we open with an uncanny, sub-magical copy of the opening sequence of Neighborhood with Hanks cleverly mimicking the movements and the distinctive spoken-singing of the theme tune, while the image itself is given an old-school-smallscreen makeover. Serving as a kind of gentle Greek Chorus, Rogers introduces Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys as a stand-in for Junod), and we’re then introduced to the messy man himself back in 1998, a cynical guy who’s meant to be an investigative journalist, but struggles to get interviews due to his always nasty pieces.

Married to public attorney Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) and having recently become a Dad to baby Gavin, Lloyd dreads being a parent and is obviously consumed with anger and hurt about his past. When he attends his sister’s wedding (the latest of several, apparently) and confronts his long-alienated Dad Jerry (Chris Cooper), it ends in disaster.

Lloyd is then assigned by editor Ellen (Christine Lahti) to interview Rogers and, after a period of snarky objecting, immediately sets about trying to find some dirt or a cruel angle on the guy, and yet the unflappable Rogers turns the tables and virtually begins to interview Lloyd, much to his annoyance. A 20-minute throwaway chat then becomes something longer and much more complex, especially when Lloyd uses the chance to write as an excuse not to face Gerry and as Rogers keeps quietly suggesting that our troubled hero deal with his feelings.

There’s an awful lot of pain here, and yet director Heller’s restraint keeps key scenes from becoming gruesomely sentimental, and while ‘American Living Treasure’ Tom has naturally received all the publicity, Rhys and Cooper are also very fine as seriously flawed people.

And while we’re here, it’s also worth asking: is there a figure in Australian television who could possibly compare to Mr. Rogers? Someone as unfailingly kind, patient, understanding and gosh-darn nice? Well… no. Sorry.

Ah well, as dear old Fred himself would have said, “Let’s make the most of this beautiful day anyway.”

Reviewer Rating

A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood (PG) is in cinemas now

DM Bradley

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