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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is an utter delight


directed by Marielle Heller

The Oscar-nominated saint specialist outdoes himself as Mister Rogers in a new film.

In the history of American television, Fred Rogers is a sainted figure. After a career that began in the 1950s – and arguably never left it – he spent nearly 40 years on screen as the host of his public-television children’s show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. On it, he performed with puppets, sang songs and talked to kids about their feelings and tough issues. An ordained Presbyterian minister, his faith might have been the backbone of his values but his religion barely figured in his chats.

He died in 2003, a few years after his final show. His already gleaming halo was given another polish by 2018’s film, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which holds the box-office record for a biographical documentary. He may be a beloved figure in North America, but he’s best known abroad possibly by the parodies of his low-budget, slow-moving time-warp show. His influence as the squarest man in pop culture extends to the existence of Ned Flanders and David Byrne’s delivery.

Now, here’s another posthumous honour – he’s been played by Tom Hanks, a man who has racked up many portrayals of latter-day saints. That the perpetually affable Hanks plays Mister Rogers is both perfect casting and at the same time slightly worrying about its obviousness.

But here’s the first revelation about A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood: Hanks is great. He’s a man strangely transformed. He’s not relying on his usual natural cordiality and zip but operating at a slower tempo while exuding a sort of zen calm and enigma. He’s been nominated for an Oscar for the role. He’ll probably win.

The second revelation: the film isn’t really about Mister Rogers. It’s not a biopic but an effort to capture what he meant. Director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) does that with a film that is not only based on a magazine story – Tom Junod’s 1997’s Esquire cover story “Can you say … hero?” – but also on the writing of that story. In the film, Junod becomes hardcore journalist Lloyd Vogel (played by The Americans’ Matthew Rhys), whose editor assigns him a seemingly easy 400-word profile of Rogers for an issue about heroes.

How that piece became a definitive 10,000 words is – with much dramatic licence added to the life of the Junod/Vogel character – pretty much the movie. It becomes a portrait of the portrait artist as much as the subject and, speaking from experience, it certainly captures the strange dance between profile writer and subject.

Rogers isn’t an easy subject. He keeps bouncing the questions back to Vogel’s own life and anger issues. The scenes between Hanks and Rhys sparkle, especially as the hard-bitten scribe warms to this odd and gentle man, who has become a wise and kindly uncle to millions.

As well as representing Junod, the Vogel character is there to represent the big bad world – then and now – asking Mister Rogers if he was really as decent a bloke as he seemed. The aforementioned documentary already answered that in the affirmative. This lovely drama backs it up.

Heller does some entertaining stylistic things along the way, such as rendering the cities where the film takes place – mostly New York and Rogers’ native Pittsburgh – in the toytown style of his show’s opening credits, which thankfully stops short of Michel Gondry-like zaniness. Nick Drake and Cat Stevens are on the soundtrack, too.

But it’s in the emotional charge she gets out of seemingly simple scenes of two men talking – and sometimes that’s between Vogel and his estranged father, played by Chris Cooper – that makes ABDITN such an utter delight of a film.



Video: Sony Pictures New Zealand

This article was first published in the January 25, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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