A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood soars with tremendous performances
It’s hard to hold back tears while watching “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”
The cynics and critics will say that director Marielle Heller’s film telegraphs some of its emotional plot points but the reality is when dealing with a subject like Fred Rogers, audience expectations can see the entire field in front of them. The magic lies in not manipulating that field but inhabiting its relatable characters who are scared and flawed, like the rest of us, and watching the game play out.
A word to the wise: This isn’t a Rogers biopic. If you want an insight into what made the children’s television host tick and what his life’s journey looked like, you’d be better off watching the excellent documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” that came out last year.
No, Heller is much more interested in Rogers’ impact on the world around him — and those who were fortunate enough to be considered his close friends, like journalist Tom Junod who profiled Mister Rogers in a 1998 article in Esquire Magazine.
And the film is a lot better off because of this decision.
Junod is repurposed here as Lloyd Vogel (played masterfully by Emmy-award winning actor Matthew Rhys), a jaded writer with a lack of empathy.
Just how deep does Vogel’s distrust in humanity run? Well, let’s just say Rogers is the only person willing to speak into the recorder after a series of heavy-hitting stories net Vogel praise amongst magazine writers but deprive him from picking his next assignment.
Vogel is tragically unaware that his isolation, frustration, and fear have seeped into the core of existence — to the point he can’t make it to give a toast at his sister’s wedding without picking a fight.
Although Rogers opens the film and introduces us to Vogel and his plight, America’s favorite neighbor doesn’t truly enter the stage to do the heavy lifting until after the wedding. It’s the absolute perfect use of the famous puppeteer.
He’s in every scene without being physically present in every scene.
And that’s because Heller never wants to overwhelm us with Rogers — this is Vogel’s journey from darkness into the light of kindness. And it’s one every American should want to take this upcoming week of Thanksgiving.
It helps that Heller has employed Tom Hanks to play the key supporting role.
It’s hard to talk about the film without mentioning the two-time Oscar winner who’s on the film’s poster and embodies Mister Rogers with grace and humility. It’s an iconic performance — one of a dozen on Hanks’ shelf.
There are three scenes with Rhys’ Vogel that cause the throat to tighten and the eyes to water. And yes, they’re “predictably” — and rightfully — scattered across the film’s first, second, and third act.
There’re lessons to take away from each of these moments but what really makes Heller’s film stay with you long after the closing credits is the work that’s being done when Rogers exits stage left.
Hanks is all but guaranteed to get his first Academy Award nomination since Cast Away in 2000, (side bar: Has it really been two decades since Hanks has received this type of attention? It doesn’t seem right but somehow it’s true), but now’s the right time to mention that he should have competition in the supporting actor category from Chris Cooper who plays Vogel’s dad, Jerry.
Cooper, who won Best Supporting Actor for his brilliant turn in Spike Jonze’s “Adaptation” in 2002, has never been better. This is a career-defining performance, and hopefully, one that receives the Academy’s recognition in January.
If Rogers and Vogel’s conversations don’t spark your sensations, the father-son relationship buried beneath the film’s log line is sure to do the trick.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is a beautiful story about coming to terms with your past and releasing the trauma from it. It’s also a film about staying present — working hard every minute of every day to choose compassion and gentleness instead of anger and panic.
Like Mister Rogers’ show, Heller’s movie isn’t afraid to dip into the painful subjects of life, wrestle with them, and attempt to come out with useful life lessons for people of all ages. It’s an absolute perfect reflection of the man’s life work.
He was what every neighbor should be: open, honest and ready to talk.