Growing up in Australia in the mid-’90s, you were hard-pressed to find children’s entertainment that didn’t focus on brawling anime monsters or anthropomorphic bananas.
That is where a beloved figure like Mister Rogers, a wholesome American children’s show host who conducted his show with sincere respect towards children, contrasts so differently to the uninhibited antics of weekday morning Agro.
For those outside of America that are unfamiliar with the work of the cardigan-wearing Rogers, he possessed an unflappable kindness and unbridled sense of decorum that had cemented him as an example of human exceptionalism. Mister Rogers Neighborhood would go places other children’s shows wouldn’t dare, exploring heavy themes of death, war and race. His words spoke not only to the children in the room, but to anyone needing to hear that they are important.
Nice guys finish first in the case of Mister Rogers.
It would take a great actor to portray Fred Rogers; someone who could authentically embody his caring persona towards people, particularly children, without coming across as creepy. Enter Hollywood’s kindest man Tom Hanks, who when paired with the gentle guidance of director Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Can You Ever Forgive Me?), will lead you to the sweetest, albeit mostly syrupy, film of 2019; A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
While promotional material positions the film as a Tom Hanks lead vehicle, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not centred around Mister Rogers. The film follows the exploits of Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys); a forty-something-year-old journalist tasked to write a fluff piece on Rogers for a feature on Heroes. Vogel’s fascination with Rogers begins to border on fixation, with the fresh-faced-father deeply fascinated, and challenged, by Rogers compassionate demeanour.
Rogers conveniently comes into Lloyd’s life during a time of gloom for the highly-decorated journo. The return of Lloyd’s absent father Jerry (a fine turn from Chris Cooper) recalls feelings of abandonment which have followed the family since the passing of their mother/wife. Workaholic Lloyd neglects processing his emotions and channels his indignation through his writing. Mister Rogers comes into the picture like the world’s best therapist; finding great comfort in offering emotional support to those that need it the most.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood comes at a time when mental health, particularly for men, is a matter of public discussion. The landscape of film, a reflection of current culture, is also reflecting this, with recent releases such as Ad Astra, Joker, and Ford v Ferrari showing the harm of toxic masculinity. Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster’s screenplay makes it crystal clear that holding on to anger is unhealthy, with Lloyd’s resentment towards his father being problematic to himself and his family (Susan Kelechi Watson playing Andrea; Lloyd’s wife).
There is an innate beauty in Rhys’ performance that is owed to the actor’s ability to convey the complex range of emotions experienced by Lloyd on his journey to emotional sobriety. At times dismissive and sceptical of Rogers and his puppets, Lloyd’s transformation throughout the film reinforces the importance of dealing with complicated emotions.
Hanks has garnered a lot of attention for taking on the role of Rogers, yet there is something to be desired by Heller’s Mary-Poppins-esque characterisation of the legendary children’s show host. Rogers rejects the moniker of being a saint; feeling pain just as heavily as anybody else. That said, by design, Mister Rogers comes into the picture without a trace of imperfection. Yes, this reinforces the sheer extent of his kindness, but in effect monotonises Hanks performance in a way that feels calibrated to elicit ‘sweet-old-man’ aww’s from the audience.
This is not to say Hanks delivers a poor performance. Far from it. A perennial good-guy and all-round gentlemen, Hanks has long been an advocate against toxic masculinity – a trait that if more men in Tinseltown possessed would progress a post Harvey Weinstein Hollywood. Hanks makes light work of personifying Rogers and executes a fine performance that exists outside of being a spot-on impersonation.
Heller bakes into the film fantastical elements, such as diorama style scene transitions and the manner Rogers introduces/closes out the film, that incorporate elements of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Whilst a nice acknowledgement to the power of Rogers, whose dulcet tones could entrance songbirds, it often feels out-of-place amongst the thematic weight of the film. Heller transforms what could have been a straighty-one-eighty cataloguing of Rogers career, a feat that is already perfectly executed in doco Won’t You Be My Neighbor, into a story that shows the power of kindness through the lens of Rogers legacy.
Passing on life-lessons as though it were an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood holds onto its sense of purpose like Rogers did an inquisitive puppet.
Just spare some hope for the nineties kids who grew up with Agro as their Mister Rogers figure.
Director: Marielle Heller
Cast: Matthew Rhys, Tom Hanks, Chris Cooper
Writers: Noah Harpster, Micah Fitzerman-Blue, (Inspired by the article “Can You Say… Hero” by Tom Junod)