What I learned from A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: the next time Nick DeSemlyen commissions a 400 word sidebar, I should turn in a 10,000 word autobiographical piece which Empire will run as a cover feature and get turned into an awards contender movie. That said, it’s a sweet film about a sweet man – though I get a sense that Tom Hanks, doing an apparently remarkable impersonation of Fred Rogers (whose show is unknown outside the US – John Landis once told me the nearest UK equivalent would be Sooty, though I suspect Play School might be closer), can’t quite suppress the suspicion that Mr Rogers is really a very very clever serial killer. That’s certainly what cynical journo Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), assigned to write a profile for an Esquire magazine piece on heroes, thinks … no one can really be this calm, this kind, this understanding, without it being some sort of a put-on. Yet, when Lloyd asks an actually probing question – about whether it was hard for Rogers’ own sons to have him as a father – Rogers is at once candid and disarming, thanking the needler for his empathy rather than confessing any great guilt.
Marielle Heller, following Can You Ever Forgive Me? (another tale of struggling writerhood), fictionalises Tom Junod’s original article but assumes an essence of truth. Here, the frame is a version of Rogers’ show, with Lloyd as a prime example of an unhappiness that he needs to deal with – he turns up at the first interview (three or four out-of-town interviews for a 400 word extended picture caption? Maybe magazine journalism was different then) with scars from a fistfight he started at his sister’s latest wedding with his estranged father (Chris Cooper), a dying alcoholic who abandoned his family to run around with loose women when Lloyd’s mother was terminally ill.
In almost TV movie like style, Rogers gently inspires Lloyd to forgive, and effects a family reconciliation that’s miraculously not saccharine – Cooper remains the grit in the oyster, even on his deathbed – while more deeply forcing Lloyd to reassess his whole attitude to writing (he’s got this gig because none of the other ‘heroes’ were willing to sit down with a known purveyor of hit pieces) and his extended family. Heller uses puppetry inserts for scene transitions, and probes a bit into Rogers’ manifestations as alter egos – a blowhard king and a timid unstriped tiger – but stages a few sequences showing a little of the backstage hard work, including a crew waiting impatiently as Rogers is kind to visitors when they’d prefer him to be performing for the cameras.
A sense of what Mr Rogers meant to America is given by a contrived, but effective sequence as he and Lloyd travel by a crowded NYC subway train and a whole range of passengers – kids, tough customers, commuters, all races, cops – serenade him with his own theme song, which he joins in just enough for them to say that he sang to them but not so much as to eclipse their performances. This is a priceless moment for Hanks, but also – wordlessly – for Rhys as he has a complex range of reactions, including sheer embarrassment, to the situation. Scripted by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, who also wrote Maleficent Mistress of Evil this year. Nice bits for Susan Kelechi Watson, Maryann Plunkett, Enrico Colantoni, Christine Lahti and Maddie Corman.