How do you make a movie about one of the nicest men ever to have lived? Well, casting Tom Hanks to play him is a great start.
It’s difficult to think of a casting decision that is more obviously correct than that of Hanks portraying children’s TV legend Mister Rogers in Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day of Neighborhood. From the moment the project was announced, it has carried the vibe of a very necessary movie, and that is born out by the final project. It’s a simply lovely story about the importance of optimism, the power of niceness and the virtue of knowing how to control and channel emotions into something useful.
Interestingly, Heller hasn’t opted to make a straight biopic of Rogers, which would have likely retrodden much of the same ground as last year’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor. Instead, this story is told from the perspective of journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), who is sent to write a short profile of Rogers for Esquire magazine – the bizarre notion of a 400-word profile notwithstanding. Vogel is an investigative reporter and, as such, dismisses the assignment as a “puff piece” about a “hokey kids’ show”, but he quickly becomes fascinated with the unique charisma and worldview put forward by the man with the endless arsenal of coloured sweaters.
Heller frames her film as a deliberate homage to the world of Mister Rogers, with the story constructed almost as a feature-length episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for adults. The audience first meets Vogel when Rogers opens a door on his “picture board” and tells the audience he wants to teach them about his wayward friend. Throughout the movie, establishing shots of various locales are conveyed via the medium of charmingly lo-fi model work. This is a children’s morality play smuggled into an adult, prestige drama. And given the moral decay of the planet in recent years, it’s a message to which everyone should be listening keenly.
It helps that Hanks is simply terrific as Rogers. From his measured, effortlessly gentle vocal cadence that has shades of Winnie the Pooh through to the way he very sensitively says “oh my” when he turns counselor for Vogel, Hanks is an oasis of calm and charm. However, this isn’t a one-note portrayal of a character referred to as a “living saint”. There’s something not quite right about Rogers in his more unguarded moments, as Hanks deftly allows the human being behind the stage persona to filter through almost imperceptibly. If Vogel asks a question he doesn’t like, Rogers bats it away so gently that it’s almost impossible to tell he’s dodging. It’s not that Hanks and Heller are hinting at a dark side, but it does show that they understand the sophistication of Rogers as a man who felt the same range of feelings and frustrations we all experience, but knew how to manage those emotions.
The sheer luminosity of Hanks’ work leaves just about everything else in the shadows. Rhys is solid, if unremarkable, in the nominal lead role, with Susan Kelechi Watson and Chris Cooper both underused as Vogel’s wife and estranged father respectively. This bizarre family unit – capped off by one of the more adorable babies of recent cinema – is supposedly the centre of the film but, during the segments when he isn’t on screen, you find yourself yearning for the sparkle that Hanks brings whenever he arrives. There’s even an iteration of the new trope of ‘charming subway scenes that almost certainly never happened’, and this one leaves Darkest Hour in the dust. The movie belongs to Hanks, and an Oscar nomination – if not a win – seems inevitable.
But praise for the degree to which A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood works should also be laid at the feet of Heller. This isn’t necessarily a movie that reinvents the wheel, but the extent to which it gently tweaks and subverts tropes really allows it to fly well above the world of standard prestige fare. When Watson’s Andrea remarks of Vogel’s profile that “it’s not really about Mister Rogers”, she could equally be talking about the movie as a whole. Heller’s film isn’t about Rogers necessarily, but it exists squarely and entirely within his world.
And in 2019, that’s certainly a world I want to live in. In short, I’d love to be Tom Hanks’ neighbour.
Dir: Marielle Heller
Scr: Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster
Cast: Matthew Rhys, Tom Hanks, Chris Cooper, Susan Kelechi Watson, Enrico Colantoni
Prd: Youree Henley, Leah Holzer, Peter Saraf, Marc Turtletaub
DOP: Jody Lee Lipes
Music: Nate Heller
Run time: 109 mins
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is screening as part of the BFI London Film Festival and is in UK cinemas from 6th December 2019.