When it comes to absorbing the culture of another country’s entertainment history, it’s fair to say that the United States has a reach across the entire world. There are many iconic American shows and figures that I hold dear to my own and who had an impact on me growing up on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, but perhaps surprisingly, Mr. Rogers wasn’t one of them. An incomparable, irreplaceable presence in the lives of American children for generations, the concept and cult of Mister Rogers is something that never translated. I was eager, then, to see what kind of an experience A Beautiful Day In The Neigborhood would provide for me.
Inspired by a 1998 Esquire magazine article by Tom Junod called ‘Can You Say … Hero?’, A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood tells the story of Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a hardened and cynical journalist who is sent to write a gentle puff piece on beloved children’s television personalist Mister Rogers (Tom Hanks). Initially resistant of his subject’s saccharine charm and unbelieving of his various caring concerns, Lloyd adopts a sceptical approach to his interviews, but over time the pair begin to develop a rapport that starts to make an impactful difference to his life, particularly his personal troubles with his own problematic father (played by Chris Cooper).
The first thing I need to say is that having absolutely no context for the cult of Mister Rogers, most of this movie’s sentimentality and nostalgic trigger points simply didn’t work on me. The closest comparison I can think to make is something like Saving Mr. Banks. That was a film about whose subject matter I had a deep and vested connection, and therefore felt fully and intrinsically connected. With A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, there was always the slight sense that I had been invited to a party where I didn’t know any other guests.
That isn’t to say, however, that I am completely without human empathy and feeling! The core emotions and themes of the film are universal enough for everyone to be involved at some level. From strained relationships with parents to childhood traumas to learning how to become an overall stable adult, the story touches on lots of topics that are par for the course in a family oriented melodrama, the interesting device here being that we have Mister Rogers to be our moral compass.
There’s no arguing that the film leans into over-sentimentality at times, but a number of interesting and bold filmmaking choices, mimicking the ‘toy town’ set world of Mister Roger’s television neighbourhood for transition and establishing shots for example, keep it from feeling dull or formulaic at any point. For a film about such a whimsical and even fantastical character as Mister Rogers was, it is nice for the filmmakers to have indulged in the whimsical side of things like existential dream sequences to really emphasise a tone. It’s an emotionally intelligent movie that isn’t afraid to take some unusual chances, which I think ultimately work well enough to elevate it above some sort of schmaltzy TV affair.
For portraying Mister Rogers, Tom Hanks is a really clever choice, perhaps the only choice that could have been made. Coming to the story and the character with completely fresh eyes, something that particularly struck me we just how, for want of a better word, creepy it could have been in the wrong hands. As a society in 2020, we simply aren’t used to meeting someone so seemingly nice, well meaning and unselfish, and to really cement these intentions as pure ones it was important have Mister Rogers played by an actor that we all implicitly love and admire. Step forward Mr. Hanks! It’s funny, because I don’t have any nostalgia for Mister Rogers, but I certainly have plenty of it for Hanks, and his sincere and unswerving kindness in the role felt like a warm hug.
As Lloyd Vogel, Matthew Rhys is tasked with giving us a lot of classic repression and melodrama, levels that threaten to smother the more delicate nature of the film at times, but on the whole he does a good job with what he is given. The film is at its most compelling when Rhys and Hanks are put together, in the conversations between Lloyd and Mister Rogers that feel like two ends of a spectrum coming together to find therapeutic common ground.
Overall, A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood is a pleasant movie. Much like the television work of Mister Rogers himself, it feels like a gentle arm around the shoulder whilst still addressing a number of serious personal issues. It is clearly a film made with love and care, and that can be felt on screen. Potentially a quite profound emotional experience for someone with an existing emotional connection to the famous character at the heart of things, but certainly poignant enough to make its universal message regardless.