Review- A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Can you say hero? This was the beautiful profile written on the late Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers to his audience) which inspired this truly beautiful film.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood shows Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), an angry writer, assigned to write a piece on Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks) for a segment about heroes. Along the way, he learns and questions so much about the childhood icon, and has to deal with his issues of anger and frustration with the guidance of Mr. Rogers.
A lot of the film is framed as if it was an episode of Mr. Rogers’ show, and it’s a wonderful touch. The lovingly re-created set, the model of the town that expands into the city landscapes of the film, and the filter over the shots to make it seem like an old episode of the show help separate this from a traditional biopic. It's a great way of assisting the main messages of the film as a whole, spelling out the main theme in the style of a Mr. Rogers’ monologue. It makes the film incredibly charming to watch.
The weight of these messages is masterfully carried by Tom Hanks’ portrayal of Fred Rogers himself. As an actor, Hanks has a tradition of bringing likable characters to life and that track record is maintained here. He brings a lot of nuanced touches to his portrayal that doesn’t go unnoticed. The way he looks at Lloyd with a stern but loving expression is great, and his stand out moment is the reaction he gives when Lloyd says he was fighting with his father.
There’s a level of investment that’s often missing from other films that Hanks brings in abundance. We also see his character continuously happy to be in any situation that he’s in and that enthusiasm is infectious. It’s an Oscar-worthy performance if ever I’ve seen one.
The way they develop Mr. Rogers is also intriguing. They stay true to the idea that everybody loves him and thinks of him as this saintly figure, but also the notion he doesn’t like this perception, as with all humans, there is anger and darkness inside him. They play with moments where normal people burst into anger with him showing overly sympathetic standpoints and healthy ways of dealing with these feelings. He’s a great example of a positive flat character, a character that doesn’t fundamentally change but influences and changes the world around them – in this case, Lloyd Vogel.
In the end, the main message that the film teaches because of this performance is one a lot of people do need to remember - some people can just be nice!
The rest of the cast is fine, bar perhaps one performance, everyone else does a good job, but no one is given the meat to work with as Hanks has been. Even Matthew Rhys (the main character) doesn’t have all that much to do, but he definitely has mastered the ‘what on earth is going on’ expression which brings a lot of joy to me when contrasted against Mr. Rogers’ childish actions, such as performing with puppets. It’s a subtle conflict, but enjoyable none the less.
What I will say is that this film’s greatest strength is also its weakness. By focusing on making this film incredibly family-friendly and true to the spirit of Mr. Rogers, it stops the film from progressing into the darker areas that it truly wants to.
They imply a lot of aggressive and harsh character traits about Lloyd Vogel that we never see. We never know why people don’t want to work with him, why he distrusts Mr. Rogers so much, or even any examples of his written work. This robs his character of a lot of potentially strong moments of development. Granted, they avoid these issues by developing the story between himself and his father, but it’s hard to not lament for the perfect story that could have been.
Overall this is a story teaching the value of forgiveness. The way the story is presented to the audience is perfect for both honoring the memory of Mr. Rogers as well as imparting wisdom for younger viewers. Where the story really shines is looking at the consequences of this anger, with Lloyd running away in frustration and making the issues stronger. A great message for adults and children alike.
The film does use typical clichés involved with the father character that forces the element of forgiveness in an unnatural way, that somewhat robs the story of its power. The first time we see his father return, he's insincere and arrogant to the point that we don’t even sympathize with the idea of wanting to forgive him, and any subsequent meetings don’t go much further to fix these characters flaws. Seeing a father after 15 years drinking and acting as a misogynist does not scream to me ‘worthy of being in your life’.
But maybe that is the power of Mr. Rogers, finding the ability to forgive those who may not deserve it? If so, it would be nice to fully address that to us.
However, the scene where Lloyd is taught by Mr. Rogers how to keep calm and find that peace is by far the best scene of the film. The shot is silent and focuses directly on the characters. Mr. Rogers even stares directly into the camera, building that relationship with the audience but also embraces the potential vulnerability of the audience to make the scene more meaningful. Extra meaning and wonderful sentiment can be found for anyone who knows what secret touch the director incorporated into the scene (a detail I won’t spoil because it is much better learned after witnessing it yourself).
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is wonderful. A beautiful homage to a genuinely lovely, passionate man played by another lovely, passionate man. While this film doesn’t quite reach the depths of the story it could tell, it’s a perfect tale to show everyone about why Mr. Rogers was so influential. A beautiful day for a neighbor indeed.