As its title suggests, Sony’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood pleases itself. This is not a criticism. It’s a good movie by today’s standards, with thoughtful scenes. Marielle Heller directs an intimate and engaging movie about the impact of Fred Rogers, a children’s television host of a long-running program on PBS. There is value in its tidy drama.
Based on a men’s magazine article and focusing on the article’s New York City author (Matthew Rhys, TV’s The Americans), assigned by his editor (Christine Lahti, Chicago Hope) to profile TV’s Mr. Rogers in 400 words, the plot contains a few fantasies and flashbacks, as is relatively common with today’s true life-based movies. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood doesn’t play with the timeline or try to trick the audience. With good, clever casting (especially with Enrico Colantoni, who played Elliott, a jaded playboy, on a TV show about a magazine as Rogers’ right-hand man), miniatures and framing, characters and plot are clear. The movie, crafted to appeal to everyone’s inner child, begins with primary colors.
Heller, whose brother Nate scores A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, gives everything a refined, subdued, childlike look and sensibility. This adds to its simplicity, which deepens and takes on weight in the film’s silences. Of course, the storybook style seeds the picture’s suspense, too, as the hard journalist, who looks like 17 miles of bad road, comes to terms with what eats away at him.
But everyone, including the writer’s drunken dad (Chris Cooper, American Beauty), in this Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood must grapple with coming to terms, accounting for and reconciling one’s inner child with the existing, aging adult. This is what Fred Rogers, whose story is not the focus but whose Socratic method is, strives to induce. And clear, simple and profound insights abound, from the child’s need for having a favorite toy or imaginary friend to the human need for values and principles to guide one’s life and the proper framework within which to build them up. The wellspring for this lesson is Mister Rogers Neighborhood, carefully re-created (with help from Pittsburgh’s WQED) here.
For example, the New York journalist, whose long-suffering but buoyant wife (Susan Kelechi Watson, Beth Pearson on NBC’s This Is Us) and infant son, Gavin, bear the brunt of his deficiencies, gives up on fastening the baby seat in the backseat of a taxi cab. But, soon, in Pittsburgh on the show’s set while on the assignment, he observes why Fred Rogers copes better with such daily frustration; he sees that Rogers lives and that he learns, pardon the cliche. The TV host accepts that life doesn’t go according to plan.
Sounds simple, right? But, in Heller’s hands, the value in Rogers’ acceptance is not merely that he accepts failure; he lets it go, moves on and chooses to share the knowledge with his audience. The implication for a jaded journalist is that he, too, ought to take life as it comes and, additionally, if by implication given something Fred Rogers says, learn to ask for help. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood has many such moments, scenes and bright spots.
It never feels forced or preachy. Whether conjuring a childhood, examining Rogers work on set as puppet master of his alter ego, Daniel Tiger, in a warm musical bit on taking ownership of one’s whole being, including one’s emotions, or making the transition from introverted hand puppet to fetal-positioned adult, A Beautiful Day abides its limits, its range and where it’s headed.
Like last year’s excellent documentary about the same man, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, this movie does not explicitly address the TV host’s philosophy. Other than a reference to his having been bullied for having been pudgy, the movie’s about rediscovering a child within, not about the man whose ministry is a children’s television workshop. Fred Rogers, from his role as a husband and father to his flaws, anger, and inner notes, gets his due.
Credit goes partly to Tom Hanks (Sully, Philadelphia, The Post, Bridge of Spies, Toy Story 4, Larry Crowne) who doesn’t get Mr. Rogers’ Western Pennsylvanian accent, pacing, let alone timing, body or opening bit even close to being right. The movie’s and TV show’s familiar opening is rushed and offbeat, not natural, and this goes to Heller’s limitations. But Tom Hanks gets the essence of the man.
Mr. Hanks portrays Fred Rogers’ knowing receipt of newly acquired knowledge, integration or wisdom, the intelligence in his eyes, the pause and reflection in his voice, tone and manner (again, the silences reel you in) and the cadence, musicality and gentle yet certain judgment of the man who ministered to and from Pittsburgh with its simple, tidy neighborhoods tucked into rolling green hills. Mr. Hanks also knows why the proper way to connect with another person begins with treating him as an individual, which starts with knowing and using his name. Not by naming as an afterthought or as a memorized hook from a list of tips, a picture or clickbait.
Mr. Rogers teaches one to know. To understand. To think, to re-think, to choose and reflect, examine and contemplate, which is not the same as to ruminate. Mr. Rogers teaches one to go by reason to enjoy a moment, as the film’s most scene-stopping sequence depicts in an Asian diner between two men. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood indulges like the TV show in the beauty of making and doing things, which imbues it with seriousness, in spite of Rhys as the writer being remote and artificial.
Other flaws, which, cumulatively, constrict emotional power, include Heller’s traditionalism with marriage and children, as against depicting a wide range (there are no gays in the neighborhood, for instance). This makes it hard for A Beautiful Day to mirror. And, while its take on selfishness, i.e., that it’s bad, is wrong, the two-hour drama plugs Fred Rogers’ ideal that living for your own sake, “without hurting yourself or others”, is ultimately like making for yourself heaven on earth.