A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood review: Tom Hanks plays an American icon in this melancholic marvel

Marielle Heller’s impressively humane film dispatches Matthew Rhys’s jaded reporter to interview children’s TV giant Fred Rogers, with emotionally revelatory results.

Andrew Simpson

Matthew Rhys as Lloyd Vogel and Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Matthew Rhys as Lloyd Vogel and Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Given the ubiquity of American culture, the question of cultural specificity must rarely arise in Hollywood. Yet it surely raised its head for the producers of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a portrait of children’s television touchstone Fred Rogers, which explores that rare thing in American life: a cultural icon little known outside their home country. It’s a pleasant surprise, then, that the third film in Marielle Heller’s increasingly luminous filmography impresses across the board, not least in the way it makes accessible a personality with whom few non-American cinemagoers will be familiar.

The question of Rogers’s cultural currency was previously raised by Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018), which assessed the legacy of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, a show that was watched by an audience of millions from 1968-2001 and which maintains a powerful relationship with a generation of nostalgic American adults in a manner similar to the more internationally travelled Sesame Street. If familiarity is a potential stumbling block, though, A Beautiful Day addresses it head-on by making its protagonist not Rogers himself but Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a journalist as unfamiliar with Rogers as many of us will be. A stand-in for real-life scribe Tom Junot (on whose 1998 Esquire article the film is based), Vogel is encouraged by his increasingly therapeutic interactions with Rogers (Tom Hanks) to address the maternal death and paternal abandonment he suffered in childhood, a lingering trauma that has left him emotionally unavailable to his own young family.

As a way into the material, it’s an effective set-up, allowing us to come to understand Rogers as Vogel himself does. More and more fascinated by his subject – a homespun, softly spoken man adorned by woolly jumpers and emotional epithets – Vogel starts to fantasise about being the star of The Neighborhood, the cosy living room from which Rogers (aided by puppets, songs and special guests) educates the nation’s children on everything from death to economics. Adding to this intertextual bait-and-switch, Heller’s film opens with Rogers talking directly to camera about the story we’re about to see. With the original show’s model toy-town bookending chapters of its story, the film is structured like a typical episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. As a deftly handled bit of narrative show-and-tell, it pays off handsomely.

Impressive as the fourth-wall narrative plate-spinning undoubtedly is, though, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood also resonates through sheer emotional heft, with praise due to Hanks for imbuing Rogers with a humanity that becomes more complex as the film progresses, adding an emotional centre to effective imitation and moving beyond what might have been a hokily one-dimensional character. Rhys convinces as a man cut off from himself and others, his reconnection with his father (Chris Cooper) and wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) examples of the film’s variety of fleshed-out supporting players.

What truly impresses here, though, is Heller herself, who with this and 2018’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? has established herself as an insightful explorer of a very American brand of melancholy. The narrative spryness of A Beautiful Day, which balances a refreshing formal complexity with major emotional discovery, might well have floundered in the hands of another filmmaker. Using Rogers as a vehicle to mine themes of grief, trauma and connecting with others, Heller works on our hearts in a manner befitting her source material. That it does so in a way that will resonate with those not already enamoured of its hero is an achievement to be savoured.


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