What the world needs now is exactly what “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” provides. Starring Tom Hanks as the beloved children’s television show host Fred Rogers and Matthew Rhys as Lloyd Vogel, a talented yet jaded journalist who must interview Rogers for Esquire Magazine, much to his chagrin, for the “Hero” issue. “Neighborhood,” co-written by Micah Ritzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster and directed by Marielle Heller (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) tells Vogel’s story and how Rogers’ impacted him in this brilliantly creative story that will change your heart and make the world a kinder place for all who see it.
Can a movie really do that? Change your heart? I challenge you to prove me wrong as the “Fred Effect” is a powerfully positive one. And if you’re thinking this is just going to be a narrative feature film based on the phenomenal 2018 documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” it’s not. We begin the tale, inspired by journalist Tom Junod’s Esquire1998 article “Can You Say… ‘Hero?’” in the Land of Make-Believe. The camera sweeps in to an incredibly elaborate design of Pittsburgh and then takes us on to the set of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Fred (Hanks) welcomes us as he calmly goes through his routine of taking off his shoes and putting on that red cardigan that has become synonymous with love and kindness. Just when you think the film is going to be a reenactment of the show, Mr. Rogers introduces us to our main character, Lloyd, whose beaten face is uncovered beneath Picture Board’s doors. We are then magically transported to Lloyd’s world in NYC and how he came to this angry state.
“Neighborhood” builds on these juxtaposing tones of positivity and negativity, aka real life, with deft skill. Lloyd, hearing that his new assignment is not hard-nosed investigative journalism, but a puff piece about a kids’ show host, makes him quite angry; not realizing that this will change his life forever. Reluctantly, he arranges a meeting with Rogers and each subsequent interaction Lloyd finds frustration, disbelief, igniting his long-buried internal. It’s a revelatory narrative arc of growth for Lloyd that will resonate with us al.
The story is incredibly powerful as the writers masterfully take us into both Lloyd’s and Rogers’ worlds. One moment we are laughing aloud, the next tears are streaming down our faces with joy and sometimes sadness. It completes all the emotional ranges we are capable of expressing. To describe scenes such as the subway or the dream scenes would be spoiling your fun so I will only alert you to them.
Attention to detail is evident in not only the script, but the set and sound design. Mr. Rogers thoughtfully explains the very dark topics that he addresses on his show and why. Lloyd is the devil’s advocate and bluntly states what many of us are perhaps thinking only to get a remarkable answer in return. Their chemistry is sometimes uncomfortable, but always genuine. It feels as if you are watching real-time events unfold, not a movie.
The interactions between Lloyd and his father Jerry (Chris Cooper) reveal where Lloyd’s anger stems and we get a clear picture of his past and what he must overcome. It is during these painful memories and current interactions that there is a tinnitus or high-pitched sound that bombards Lloyd, sending him into his angry and unbearable world. The emotional roller coaster then quickly jettisons us into the next scene from NYC to Pittsburgh and back using extraordinarily detailed sets imitating the Land of Make Believe. These are the small, no pun intended, but important details that accentuate the creativity of all who are involved in this film giving the intense story a way to bounce into a safer emotional state.
All of this could not be possible or believable if it wasn’t for the fact that Hanks becomes Rogers. From the moment we meet him going through the door of the set at WQED in Pittsburgh, he is Mr. Rogers. His body language, affect, mannerisms, speech pattern and cadence and most importantly, his expressive eyes all replicate the man millions of children (and now adults) have come to love and admire. To resemble another person for a film is a grand accomplishment, but to become him, making the audience believe in him, is quite another. Hanks is sublime.
Rhys performance is equally as powerful, balancing the story in a difficult way. It’s real and one with which most of us can connect. Cooper has a stand out performance as well and Enrico Colantoni’s role as Rogers’ right-hand man Bill Isler is a small role, but one that has heart and comedy as well. Every actor in this film is perfectly cast adding just the right dose of personality to make this film come to life.
Director Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is a brilliant work of art as Hanks captures the heart, soul, and essence of Fred Rogers. Make no mistake, this is Vogel’s story. Heller found a gem of a tale to retell and gives audiences a powerfully uplifting story based on reality. Her ingenious imagination and creativity keeps us grounded in Fred’s world as we walk in Lloyd’s shoes, experiencing an empathy with this character like no other and hopefully, ultimately changing us. It’s a metamorphosis of a character and maybe even of us as viewers.
4 STARS out of 4. (I’d give it more if I could!)