Integrity is a special thing to attain, and more importantly, hold onto over the course of your life.
Fred Rogers had loads of integrity. He could have bottled that stuff up and sold it for charity efforts. The man opened up his heart to anyone and everyone who would sit down and talk to him. It didn’t matter what you had done or been guilty of morally-he was your friend. He was everybody’s friend.
Marielle Heller (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) wisely carves out an impactful piece of Rogers’ life for her new film, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” It was Rogers’ interview with Esquire journalist Tom Junod in 1998 that inspired the movie, which runs smoothly just under 110 minutes long. A meeting of polar opposites in Junod, named Lloyd Vogel here (Matthew Rhys), and Rogers (Tom Hanks) put forth the greatest test of the PBS kid’s show host’s power of compassion.
Vogel, a cynical soul with hardened issues involving an estranged father (the limitlessly talented Chris Cooper), didn’t believe in Rogers’ ways. He thought it was an act, a ploy to get viewers and make a bunch of money. A 400 word puff piece turned into something else when Rogers pulled his trademark move, turning a standard interview around, becoming an emotional tell-all of the person on the other side of the table.
This movie is so well done and insightful. All these years later and Rogers is still teaching us vital things, through Heller’s lens and Hanks’ words. The actor is arguably cinema’s greatest living actor, a guy who can handle comedy roles, lightly dramatic roles, and tackle the toughest and deepest of portrayals.
Think about it for a minute. He’s played a mentally impaired war hero, an astronaut, a homosexual attorney with AIDS who fights for his life, a mob hitman, embattled neighbor dealing with a bird issue, a ship Captain, a military captain, an insurance agent turned government spy hostage negotiator, and so much more. In close to 90 performances, Hanks has done it all, but here, he proves that a surprise or two is still in order.
Thankfully, he doesn’t use loads of makeup or prosthetic to play Rogers, just an outfit and haircut. Pros like Hanks don’t need a lot of help to slip into the skin of a character, real or not. He nails the voice, movements, and overall sincerity Rogers offered, and he never wavers. Calling Hanks Oscar-worthy is like saying a sandwich requires bread to be whole.
Rhys, though, is the real standout here. Vogel isn’t an easy nut to crack, and you needed an actor to not go so hard so early in the role. Rhys is a patient performer, slowly uncoiling all of Lloyd’s rage towards his father and in the vicinity of any cheery soul that comes within a few miles of his presence. The man has played several reporter-types in his time on screen, but Vogel allows him to be a writer with a background that expands as the movie grows old.
Cooper gives a rich and layered performance in a supporting role, showing a father sprinting internally to make up for lost time, but finding the desire empty from the other side. Susan Kelechi Watson (Beth on NBC’s “This Is Us”) is very good as Lloyd’s embattled wife, dealing with an infant child as well as an overgrown one.
Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster’s (who co-stars in the film) script is sharp, taking some liberties in the true story that inspires the film without entering melodramatic waters. They don’t forget to let the actor’s, history, and the environment play a part in the tale. A scene in a restaurant where Rogers asks Vogel to take 60 seconds to reflect is just as powerful as a train full of strangers serenading Rogers with his own song.
Heller makes some provocative choices in her direction, including the use of Rogers’ old sets as the city skylines. Instead of a wide shot of New York or Pittsburgh, you get the old fashioned toy-enabled look of something you’d see on the old PBS show instead, and it works. The goal of the film is to using Rogers’ devices to heal Vogel’s pain, and that’s an all-encompassing mission.
Is the film a little predictive? Sure, but that doesn’t lessen the impact. All films don’t have to be mystery-driven ballads about greedy families stabbing and poisoning each other for millions. No offense, Rian Johnson. Some film just need to make us feel something nostalgic while reinforcing an old lesson about compassion for strangers.
Many years later, Rogers is still showing us what life is, and should be, all about. Helping others, promoting goodness, and never passing up a chance to make someone smile. Try naming someone who has a bigger impact on so many generations.
In an isolated story, Heller, Hanks, and Rhys never forget about that effect and champion it so bright that it affects many lives in the process of the film.
The cinematography is solid without being exceptional, but the production design, specifically the show sets, are very well done. The score is patient and doesn’t overwhelm.
I’d recommend this movie to just about anyone. All of us need a film like this, an important reminder of what we are doing here and what the goal should.
Hanks soars, Rhys breaks out, and Heller proves that she’s one of cinema’s directors to watch.