A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper
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…if you don’t feel just a bit warm and gooey watching this film then you are probably cynical, bitter or dead.
Everything about this movie is kind of, well er, beautiful; but that’s not as simple as it sounds. It is a biopic that transcends that genre.
The source for director Marielle Heller’s (Can You Ever Forgive Me, The Diary of a Teenage Girl) film is a magazine article about Pittsburgh-based beloved children’s TV host Fred Rogers. We start with Lloyd Vogel (played by under rated Welsh actor Matthew Rhys). Lloyd is a world-weary investigative journalist. When his editor says she thinks it would be good to cover something a bit lighter and suggests doing a short profile of Fred Rogers, he immediately snorts in contempt. Then he goes to meet Fred in person and slowly falls under his spell.
It is no spoiler to suggest that the genial TV host softens the cynical hack. The real point is how the film is pitched and played.
It’s not just a two hander of course. There are other story arcs woven in here. Lloyd is more or less fully estranged from his dad Jerry (excellent support playing from Chris Cooper). Jerry hit the bottle and neglected his marriage and family, and Lloyd has a hard time forgiving him. Of course, as the film amply demonstrates, you can’t really heal and move on if you can’t forgive.
Such life lessons could be just hokey if done in a smug way, but this is where the casting of Hanks is so crucial. He embodies Fred Rogers not just in terms of acting as him but in terms of some intangible-but-felt quality that the actor brings to the screen. This film has already been compared to Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life and that would make Hanks the modern-day James Stewart. When you actually see this film, you won’t think that is too big a claim.
In fact, it is almost impossible to imagine any contemporary actor doing a better job here. Heller goes ‘all in’ on this gamble from the very start. She opens with Fred hosting his TV show. As we see him don his red cardy and blue loafers and smile gently to camera we wonder how this is ever going to work, but that choice turns out to be absolutely right.
Admittedly, there are just a couple of moments which some people may find too mawkish and ‘apple pie’ (and it is resolutely down-home American), but it is also irresistible somehow.
Hats off to Heller really because to be this sentimental without being unpalatably saccharine is much harder than it looks. Capra would have been proud to make this one. Really, if you don’t feel just a bit warm and gooey watching this film then you are probably cynical, bitter or dead.