A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)
Directed by: Marielle Heller
Premise: Based on true events. A cynical investigative journalist (Matthew Rhys) is tasked to write a profile of legendary children’s television host Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks). The assignment forces the journalist to confront his own unresolved feelings about his father.
What Works: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood has been marketed as a movie about Fred Rogers but the story is really about the journalist played by Matthew Rhys. He is gripped by anger and fear and upon meeting Rogers the journalist’s immediate response is to interrogate the television host with the hope of revealing Rogers’ persona as a fraud and thereby validate his own cynicism. But things don’t work out that way and Rogers’ authentic patience and kindness reveal a way for the journalist to cope with his feelings. Matthew Rhys is quite good in the lead role; we can see the rage underneath his performance and his transformation is gradual; the journalist has to be coaxed into giving up his grudges and that gives his story credibility. Also impressive is Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers. Hanks doesn’t look much like Rogers but he suggests the television host in his voice and posture and the illusion is convincing. Rogers remains an enigma—A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood maintains the mystery of the man—but there are flashes of humanity and weakness in Hanks’ performance that keep him within human dimensions. This picture also uses elements of the Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood television program in ways that allow the story to emphasize what Rogers did so well and why his ideas and methods were about more than just entertaining children.
What Doesn’t: Viewers won’t learn much about Mr. Rogers from watching A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. This is really the journalist’s story but therein the movie has a problem. This film is heavily fictionalized and in fact many of the key details of the journalist’s story are dramatic inventions, most notably the rift between the writer and his father. The scenario that the filmmakers have concocted is primed for drama but also for forgiveness. The journalist’s father is sick and looking for reconciliation. The scenario comes across a little too simplistic and convenient. All the writer has to do is go along with what everyone else wants him to do. Actor Matthew Rhys does a good job of conveying this man’s interior struggle but the film would have been stronger and more interesting if the path to redemption wasn’t so clearly laid out before him.
Bottom Line: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood tells a satisfying story of a man finding grace in the saintliness of a beloved public figure. The story’s fictionalizations take dramatic shortcuts rather than engaging with complex difficulties but the film accomplishes what it sets out to do. Viewers interested in learning about Fred Rogers ought to seek out the 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Episode: #779 (December 8, 2019)