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With: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Chris Cooper, Susan Kelechi Watson, Maryann Plunkett, Enrico Colantoni, Wendy Makkena, Tammy Blanchard, Noah Harpster, Carmen Cusack, Kelley Davis, Christine Lahti, Maddie Corman, Daniel Krell
Written by: Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster
Directed by: Marielle Heller
MPAA Rating: PG for some strong thematic material, a brief fight, and some mild language
Running Time: 108
Date: 11/22/2019

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Just Your Being You

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Last year, Morgan Neville's documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor? — about children's television host Mr. Rogers — was a most talked-about item, not only because of its power to make just about everyone cry, but also because it sparked a discussion about kindness. Why is kindness so rare today? Why is it so hard to be kind? Now comes the fiction feature film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, and you might ask why we needed another version. There are several reasons. One is that this movie tells a different story, with Rogers as something of a supporting character. Another is that Tom Hanks was born to play the role. And, thirdly, best of all, we could all use another dose of kindness.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood focuses on Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a shabby, cynical reporter for Esquire Magazine who feels the need to push and badger his subjects in search of the truth. His editor assigns him an interview with Fred Rogers (Hanks), mainly as a way to save his sinking reputation. ("No one wants to talk to you anymore.") Lloyd has a few strange encounters with Fred, watching him work and bond with troublesome children, and finding that Fred is just as interested in asking Lloyd questions. Though Lloyd is only assigned a short puff piece, he is unsatisfied and wants to dig deeper, find out what makes Mr. Rogers tick.

At the same time, Lloyd has bumped into his estranged father (Chris Cooper) at his sister's wedding. His father is interested in reconnecting, but Lloyd wants nothing to do with it, and keeps shutting him out. The increased stress on Lloyd and his increasing trips to see Fred also put a strain on his marriage to his wife (Susan Kelechi Watson), with whom he has a young son, Gavin. Lloyd has a hallucination in which he imagines himself as part of Mr. Rogers's show — shown on old standard-definition video and square aspect ratio — and, after, as if awakening for the first time in a long time, finally allows himself to listen.

Director Marielle Heller, who also made the based-on-a-true-story Can You Ever Forgive Me?, has a great deal of fun using the original TV show Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood as a framing device, and as a way to introduce Lloyd. In one scene, Mr. Rogers and Mr. McFeely watch a video about how a magazine goes into production, and, there in the video, we see Lloyd glumly walking through the newsroom and into his editor's office. In another scene, she allows an entire minute of silence, with Mr. Rogers looking first at Lloyd, and then right at us, asking us to think about the people who loved us. Indeed, Mr. Rogers here feels like both a higher power, and a human being. (His wife explains to Lloyd that Fred hates being compared to a Saint.) During an uncomfortable silence in a room where a dying man lays, Fred quietly speaks, saying that death is "mentionable and manageable."

Heller makes A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood into a movie-movie, designed to give you the feels; Lloyd Vogel is a fictionalized version of reporter Tom Junod, who wrote the real Esquire piece. But this is fine, given that this is what the movie is actually about. As we found out in Neville's film, Fred Rogers was the real thing, a genuinely compassionate, caring, and understanding man, a man who listened and was curious. There was seemingly no one he couldn't reach. (I kept wondering, however, what a meeting between Fred and Trump would have been like... could Mr. Rogers have coaxed a kind word, or an apology for nasty behavior, from The Donald? Imagine...)

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