Rhys Handley on Marielle Heller’s ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood’ (2019)
Who was Fred Rogers? It’s a question that preoccupies both A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood director Marielle Heller and her film’s protagonist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) on an abstract, philosophical level. For UK audiences, however, it’s probably quite a plain four-worded question that needs a plain answer. Despite the reverend and television presenter’s ubiquity and iconicity among generations of Americans, Rogers’ profile on these shores is practically nonexistent, a challenge the film will face with most markets beyond the domestic.
It seems appropriate, then, that Heller — along with screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster — chose Lloyd, a journalist, as the entry point to Neighbourhood’s story. His curiosity and cynicism are well-placed to emulate that of the non-US viewer when met with the indomitable optimism and acceptance espoused in Rogers’ philosophy, most overtly on his decades-spanning children’s programme Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood, which is affectionately and accurately recreated here by an acutely attentive production design team, whose work is threaded into the linking tissue of the film with a tastefulness that eschews hokeyness for charm. A hard-bitten magazine hack known for his brutal exposés on questionable figures, Vogel’s quest to find the chink in Rogers’ saintly armour emulates our own disbelief at the quiet immutability of his kindness.
Neither does it harm the film’s translatability that it is Tom Hanks, a far more internationally-recognisable figure of old-school American charm and decency, that has stepped into the sneakers of such a specific and exclusively American personality. Hanks’ performance here is a tender evocation of Rogers’ simple, Christian wholesomeness – a delicate, chemical calibration of his own familiar persona with that of his subject.
To backtrack, Neighbourhood is Heller’s adaptation of Esquire journalist Tom Junod’s 1998 profile of Rogers, entitled ‘Can You Say… Hero?’, in which Junod’s trademark scepticism was undercut by Rogers’ infectious humanism. Junod is represented here by Rhys’ Lloyd Vogel, an embittered newshound assigned the Rogers profile amid his own personal turmoil, not least a seething, toxic resentment of his absent father Jerry (Chris Cooper). Lloyd is realised by Rhys as an asshole with a heart of gold — a new father failing to balance his familial responsibilities with a pathological compulsion to expose and undermine well-liked celebrities and public figures in his writing. There is plenty of deep-seated decency within Lloyd, sweetly evoked in his interactions with his wife Andrea (who is imbued with vivacity and suggested life beyond the screen by Susan Kelechi Watson), but his anger and antipathy are firmly in the driver’s seat at the outset of the film.
Rogers himself enters slowly into the picture from its edges — first as a face on a television and a voice on a phone, before Lloyd flies out to meet him for the first in a series of interviews that will take place both on set in Rogers’ native Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and eventually within the borders of Lloyd’s own life in New York. Lloyd is immediately enraged and disarmed by both Rogers’ immediate investment in the journalist’s own troubles, and his impenetrable veneer of kindness which Lloyd’s hubris convinces him must be a front that can be exposed as a lie. But the pair strike up a tentative (on Lloyd’s side) friendship that gradually dissipates any animosity, as Rogers hovers on the periphery of Lloyd’s life like a guardian angel, gently nudging the lost soul down his path to narrative resolution.
Nostalgia is baked deep into the bones of Neighbour, and the chilly autumnal cosiness it evokes out of New York City signals its of-a-pieceness with Heller’s previous offering Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018). Both films are characterised by the warm, welcoming familiarity of classical plot structure and a time-honoured, concrete-brown NYC aesthetic, supported wonderfully by Tate Heller’s smooth, smoky jazz score and the odd Nick Drake deep cut on the soundtrack. Where Can You Ever Forgive Me? revelled in and found emotional depth in the irredeemability of Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant’s lovable scumbags, however, Neighbourhood extends this preoccupation further into a musing on the powers of love and empathy to bring about redemption for its abrasive lead.
Though it may be a trite assessment, what Heller creates here is arguably a film for the times we live in — a full-throated endorsement of unconditional kindness released amid an age of Trumpian cruelty and division. Fred Rogers the man may not have transcended international borders, but his worldview is a vitally important one to absorb when so much of what defines present-day life on our planet finds itself beset on all sides with aggression and ignorance. Through the lightly-fictionalised and compassionately-rendered story of Misters Rogers and Vogel, Neighbourhood puts forward a thesis on the power of listening and communicating and, in all its fuzzy familiarity, reminds us that anyone can be saved by anyone who cares enough to try.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is showing in UK cinemas 31 January 2020.