A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood was directed by Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) from a script by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, and is based on the 1998 article “Can You Say…Hero?” by journalist Tom Junod. Matthew Rhys plays Lloyd Vogel (who is based on Junod), an investigative journalist for Esquire Magazine, who gets put on assignment profiling Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) for a piece the publication is doing on heroes. Lloyd is very good at his job, but not so good at getting involved with the most essential part of his job: other people. He can be abrasive, and his writing often focuses on tearing the subjects down more so than building them up, so be becomes frustrated when his usual investigative work is “interrupted” by his new assignment; fortunately, he goes to interview Mr. Rogers anyway, and as the man behind the neighborhood begins to chip away little by little at Lloyd’s embitteredness (most of it directed towards his absent father), a friendship begins to form, and some wounds in Lloyd, those that have fueled his anger and distrust of others, open and festering for years, are finally allowed to be cleaned and closed, enabling Lloyd to heal himself into the person he wished he’d had to look up to when he was a child. Also starring Chris Cooper, Susan Kelechi Watson, Maryann Plunkett, and Enrico Colantoni, Heller’s latest directorial effort invites us to examine those parts of ourselves that are bound up by resentment, offering both companionship through kindness and a helping hand on the journey towards forgiveness.
If you haven’t had the privilege of watching the fantastic Mr. Rogers documentary that was released last year, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, first stop reading this review and go watch it – it’s magnificent, and was the only documentary last year to make it into my Top 10 Movies of 2018 (though Minding the Gap was incredibly close). The film’s omission from the Best Documentary Feature category at the Oscars last year remains one of the Academy’s most egregious snubs, as most anyone who saw it before the nominations were announced (including me) had picked it to win the category altogether. As such, when Tom Hanks was announced to be playing the icon in a new biopic, the internet lost its collective mind, especially at how perfect that casing was, and I was right there with them. This has been one of my most anticipated films of the year ever since I saw the trailer when it dropped back in July. I never did see Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but the Oscar nominations speak for themselves, and given that film’s almost universally positive reviews, as well as Marielle Heller’s reputation as a major up-and-comer to watch out for, I was looking forward to her junior effort, and was interested in seeing what she could do with a story like this.
Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: this is not the movie you might’ve been expecting from the way the trailer sold it to you. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not not that, but there’s actually a lot more that’s different about it than I was expecting to encounter; in many senses, it doesn’t quite fit the mold of a traditional biopic. It’s still about the same story and features all the same people, yes, but in terms of its structure, editing, aesthetics, and general sense of narrative progression, as well as most of its technical elements, it really stands as a quite a unique picture, and certainly one of the most uniquely executed of 2019. At times, the film can become delightfully surreal, even going so far as to feature a sequence so bizarre for the type of film Sony’s been selling with this that you kind of have to admire the guts it takes to include it at all in the first place. There’s a charm about the film that can only come from it having been made the way it was, but to divulge exactly how the story is told might actually be verging on spoiler territory, something most people wouldn’t typically associate with a biopic about Mr. Rogers befriending an embittered journalist. In that respect, it’s Marielle Heller’s direction that crops up as the strongest element at play here, positioning the film as a sort of episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood dug out from the archives and finally brought to the light. I don’t know if Heller herself will get a nomination for her work here, but she absolutely deserves some awards recognition for managing to keep all the more outlandish elements and the more grounded material together in such a way that a quietly compelling, gently moving story still got told, but not so close together that the movie just seemed like an exercise in trying to one-up Sorry to Bother You or any other film that features somewhat bizarre elements being essential to its story.
It goes without saying that the performances in the film are great, and of course Tom Hanks is almost as perfect as Mr. Rogers as anyone ever thought he could be (even without the identical voice), but I did want to give a little more spotlight to Matthew Rhys as Lloyd Vogel; Rhys has been one of the finest working actors in Hollywood for a pretty long time (in fact, he just won the Best Lead Actor Emmy last year for his work in the final season of FX’s The Americans), but on the film scene, he’s been mostly absent so far. At first, it seems as if Lloyd Vogel might just be a hardline journalist because that’s what the film required in order for the story to work, but hiding just underneath Rhys’ eyes is the understanding that when you encounter many of the people his character would have encountered, or gone through the things he has, you might also struggle not to become somewhat jaded or embittered by the world around you. Many actors would have jumped at the opportunity to put all the nuance of the role right in front of the camera, bur Rhys has always been exceptional at putting his character’s journey just behind the eyes, close enough that we can see it happening, but not so close that it’s too obvious what he’s thinking. This is what makes Rhys a phenomenal talent, and he really gets to show everyone watching this film what they’ve been missing while he’s been spying for the KGB.
Apart from the performances and direction, what the audience is ultimately left with is the script, and while it’s certainly as good as the direction and performances would need it to be to get the job done, it’s just not quite as sharp or moving as a film like this clearly needs it to be in order to be a better film than it is. This is a very good film, but the writing, despite introducing many ideas for the audience to ponder after the credits roll, keeps it from being a great film, opting instead to merely introduce some powerful concepts on the fringes of the dialogue that don’t end up going very well explored by the time the movie’s over. The performances and the story itself are really what move the audience with this one, rather than any new revelations or deeper digressions on the film’s thematic ideals. It’s not as if this makes the film worse by any stretch of the imagination, but one can’t help but feel you’d only get the full experience or feel the full impact of the story if you’d read the full 10,000 word article originally published in Esquire Magazine. As is, it’s a serviceable script, and even in a really good one in many parts, but it just doesn’t quite reach the heights it might’ve hoped to, though not for lack of trying.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood may not have been the movie we all expected it to be, and in my opinion, doesn’t quite have the impact one might wish it had, but that’s okay, and its nurturing, kind-natured manner more than makes up for any lack of emotional punches it might have. Heller and company have crafted a quietly beautiful picture that gently moves its audience one scene at a time, with one of the most unique storytelling structures in any movie this year, and very solid performances from both Tom Hanks and Matthew Rhys, even if those performances are largely making up for a script that doesn’t quite know how to communicate what those performances mean. But seriously, go watch the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? You won’t regret it.
I’m giving “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” an 8.2/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.