Film review: ‘A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Fred Rogers, the host of the American children’s educational TV show Mr Rogers’ Neighbourhood (amongst others) is a much-loved pop cultural icon in the US but isn’t particularly well known to Australian audiences. After seeing the film, A Beautiful Day in The Neighbourhood, which stars Tom Hanks as Mr Rogers and is based on real events in Roger’s life, viewers may still find him a bit of a mystery but will probably feel inspired to learn more about this unusual icon.

A Beautiful Day in The Neighbourhood is not a comprehensive biopic of Fred Rogers which may disappoint some viewers. For a more detailed insight into the events of his life, people should check out the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbour. A Beautiful Day is more concerned with Rogers’ positive impact on other people and his role as an oasis of empathy, calm and avuncular wisdom amid the cynicism of the modern world. Mr Rogers’ Neighbourhood was designed to address children’s emotional development and through Mr Rogers’ empathetic manner, allow them to confront challenging issues like bullying and even death.

Here, the person receiving Mr Rogers’ folksy but perceptive world view is bitter and disillusioned Esquire investigative journalist, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) who reluctantly agrees to write a brief piece on the children’s TV host. Vogel is a fictionalised version of journalist Tom Junod who interviewed Mr Rogers in 1998. Initially seeing the assignment as punishment for less than flattering articles he’d written about other public figures, the self-important Vogel treats the job as both a joke and a chore. As he interviews the soft-spoken, cardigan wearing Rogers, though, Lloyd realises he’s dealing with a quiet but remarkable man. As he tries to dig beneath the surface of Mr Rogers’ squeaky-clean public persona, Lloyd only succeeds in opening his own emotional wounds connected to his childhood and his fraught on-going relationship with his father Gerry (Chris Cooper).

This is a thoughtful and at times moving story of family conflict, personal redemption and the uplifting impact of a genuinely kind person. This film could easily have become unbearably schmaltzy but it’s saved by the sheer quality of the filmmaking. This includes the convincing and highly engaging performances from the two leads. With Mr Rogers’ distinctive cardigans, halting speech and uncomfortable probing stare, Hanks is at first an unusual and slightly creepy presence here. Still, as he so often does, Hanks draws us into the character and here he infuses Rogers with psychological undercurrents that suggest much more going on beneath his calm and saintly surface. He portrays Rogers as a smart but unpretentious and exceptionally likeable figure who clearly strives to overcome personal anxieties and past struggles. Matthew Rhys makes Lloyd a believably complex and troubled person in whom self-pity, fierce resentment and basic decency are constantly battling.

With Lloyd’s personal dramas at the film’s centre, director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me) sets an appropriately grim tone for much of the movie with gloomy lighting and a minor key score. Amid these scenes she weaves slightly surreal sequences using the sets and creatures from Mr Rogers’ TV show including conversations with the puppets.

The film’s major flaw is that it runs out of steam before the end. It establishes its premise and themes early and reaches an emotional crescendo by the mid-point so the latter part isn’t really telling us anything new. Still, the film’s best moments will strike a powerful emotional chord with many audience members and will leave many intrigued about the friendly but still ambiguous figure that is Fred Rogers.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2

Genre: Biopic/ drama.

Classification: PG.

Director(s): Marielle Heller.

Release date: 23rd Jan 2020.

Running time: 109 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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