Friday, November 22, 2019

Oscar Bait: A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood

No, seriously, PLEASE won't you be my neighbor?

Based on Tom Junod's 1998 profile of Fred Rogers, or more accurately, based on the writing of that profile, A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood is more about the emotional journey of a journalist than it is about Mr. Rogers.

And I suppose that's fine, if the movie wasn't being marketed like it's some kind of biopic, which it definitely is not (not of Rogers nor of Junod, since his story is highly fictionalized). If you want to learn about Mr. Rogers and really understand what he was all about, just watch Morgan Neville's brilliant 2018 documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?. If you want to see Tom Hanks doing a serviceable impersonation of Fred Rogers, albeit one with limited screen time, see A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood.

Matthew Rhys plays the fictionalized journalist, now named Lloyd Vogel. He and wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) are new parents. After bringing the baby on its first family outing to Lloyd's sister's (third) wedding, Lloyd has a run-in with his estranged and alcoholic father, Jerry (Chris Cooper). Jerry wants to reconcile; Lloyd wants to hold on to his resentment; things turn violent.

Naturally, Lloyd's editor (Christine Lahti) decides this is the perfect time to send Lloyd on an assignment: write a profile about Mr. Rogers for Esquire's issue about heroes. (A bitter cynic meeting Mr. Rogers? Why, that should be the plot a movie!)

As cliched as that set-up is, director Marielle Heller at least frames it in a unique way, echoing the tone of the original magazine piece by setting up the film like it's a long episode of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, complete with that familiar living room and closet, a miniature version of New York City, and appearances from Mr. McFeely and Lady Aberlin.

Tom Hanks, who could perhaps be seen as the most "Mr. Rogers" of actors because of his reputation for decency and niceness, is probably the perfect choice to ably portray Fred Rogers' guilelessness, even if sometimes he comes off more eccentric than simply earnest. (Though I suppose in a world filled with cynics like Lloyd Vogel, earnestness can be seen as the ultimate eccentricity). A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood isn't a bad movie, it's just a predictable and common one that doesn't do justice to a person who turned out to be one of world's most uncommon heroes.

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