“What the hell was that!?” said a colleague when we left the cinematheque after viewing A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood. As the usual routine is that we all shuffle out avoiding eye contact, jealously guarding our tiny insights, such an exclamation was – to say the least – unusual. I only wish I could have provided an answer.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is one of the strangest films you will see this year. It’s a film that really shouldn’t work. One constantly feels that at any moment the entire thing will degenerate into vat of marshmellow.
That feeling of trepidation becomes edgy, almost suspenseful, as we are dragged ever more deeply into the world of Mr. Rogers, a children’s TV host, whose off-screen persona is virtually identical to the man who spends hours talking very slowly and patiently to his pre-pubescent audience.
To spend an hour-and-a-half with Mr. Rogers is an unsettling experience. On one hand he’s positively creepy, on the other he’s like a new age guru who wants to help you discover your inner child. His closest match in the movies might be Hal, the supercomputer from 2001: A Space Odyssey, who apologises in a polite monotone when he is about to obliterate the astronaut.
Mr. Rogers may not be about to obliterate anyone but it’s as if he has some deep, dark plan for you which he’s not ready to reveal. He’s like a spider spinning its web, intent on capturing a troubled soul on which he can practise his mystic arts. He’s so relentlessly nice, so calm and caring, I could feel my knuckles whitening as I clenched the sides of my chair.
This may be directly contrary to much of what you will read about this movie – that it’s a “heart-warming”, “feel-good”, “life-affirming” night at the pictures. One would have to be especially dumb or insensitive to view the film in these terms (both qualities being well within the compass of many reviewers). What Marielle Heller has given us is a far more complex creation: a portrait of a saintly figure whose extreme self-control seems to be its own form of madness.
The movie gains immensely from Tom Hanks’s performance as Mr. Rogers. His tone is faultless, his ability to get under the skin of his subject’s glazed perfection is breathtaking. It looks like an Oscar-winning role.
Yet Hanks is only the supporting actor in this movie. The lead role is played by Matthew Rhys, as Lloyd Vogel, a feature writer for Esquire, with a reputation for hatchet jobs. As we get acquainted with Lloyd we swiftly understand the reasons for his aggressive approach, beginning with a philandering father who walked out on his wife and family. Now that Lloyd’s mother is dead, he has never been able to forgive his faithless dad (Chris Cooper), whose presence at his sister’s (third) wedding sends him into a violent rage. At the same time, Lloyd is trying to cope with being a new parent, which concentrates his thoughts on his own messed-up childhood.
His editor, feeling that Lloyd’s anger is becoming a liability, decides she’ll get him to write a profile of America’s favourite children’s TV star as part of a series on “our heroes”. The assignment brings forth snorts of indignation from Lloyd. When he is obliged to do it anyway he travels to Pittsburgh, where the show is recorded, with every intention of exposing Mr Rogers as a phoney.
As if through Lloyd’s eyes we take in the funny, model toytown that is Mr. Rogers’s “neighbourhood”. We watch him come through the door onto the set, put on his comfy shoes, play with his puppets, and address his devoted audience. We can virtually feel Lloyd cringing with contempt, if we’re not doing so ourselves. But it’s mesmerising.
When Lloyd sits down to talk with Mr. Rogers his ‘hard-boiled journo’ stance gradually starts to unravel. Never has he intervewed someone who seemed so intent on interviewing him back. As Lloyd strives to learn about Mr. Rogers, he reveals more and more about himself. But where Lloyd’s intention was to take his subject down, Mr. Rogers wants to help Lloyd heal his personal wounds. With each meeting Mr. Rogers insinuates himself more deeply into Lloyd’s mind, like a softly-spoken life coach.
In the wrong hands this could have been one of the corniest movies ever made. Instead, Heller, Hanks and the scriptwriters have delivered a study of what it means when one’s entire mode of being in the world is indistinguishable from a TV persona. It’s Mr. Rogers’s unique consistency that makes him so unnerving. He seems to have been body-snatched by a benevolent group of aliens who are using him to make us into nicer people but haven’t figured out the way human beings actually talk.
Like Lloyd we are constantly looking for the cracks in Mr. Rogers’s façade, but it’s not until the very end that we receive the smallest satisfaction.
As it’s axiomatic that all new American movies are really about Donald Trump one can see how Mr. Rogers’s belief in the unconditional love of one’s neighbour sends a powerful counter-message to the totally conditional hatred fostered by this President. One can imagine politically weary Americans succumbing to the calming monotony of Hanks’s delivery, wishing that weird Mr. Rogers’s neighbourhood could be extended over the entire country.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood
Directed by Marielle Heller
Written by Noah Harpster, Micah Fitzerman-Blue, after an article by Tom Junod
Starring Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Chris Cooper, Susan Kelechi Watson, Maryann Plunkett, Enrico Colantoni, Wendy Makkena
USA/China, rated PG, 109 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 1 February, 2020