The main problem with Marielle Henner’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood for UK audiences is one of recognition. TV presenter Mister Rogers was a key part of the formative years of millions of children across America. Imagine if you will, Brian Cant from Play Away and Geoffrey from Rainbow – bundled into one avuncular package – and you’ll have some idea of the kind of person we’re talking about. And who do you get to play one of the nicest guys in history? Well, Tom Hanks, obviously.
But actually this story is mostly about Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a journalist for Esquire magazine and a man with deep family issues – the kind that lead to him having a fist fight with his father, Jerry (Chris Cooper) at his sister’s wedding, for example. He’s clearly not a happy bunny. He’s also a new dad, struggling to come to terms with his baby son’s needs and leaving most of the heavy lifting to his wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson).
When Lloyd is dispatched to interview and write a feature on the aforementioned Fred Rogers, he’s initially horrified. He’s more the kind of writer to pen a character assassination than a puff piece. He’s convinced that Rogers must have some dark and nasty secret. (Looking back at many of my childhood heroes, I’m with him on this one.) So imagine his surprise when it turns out that Fred Rogers is every bit as nice as his TV persona. Indeed, according to Rogers, there is no persona. What you see is what you get.
And the more Lloyd spends time with him, the more the hard-bitten journalist begins to heal…
This is a warm hug of a movie, which attempts to walk a perilous tightrope between emotion and corn (if it occasionally strays into the latter, well perhaps that’s just my cynical Brit personality kicking in). There’s actually quite a lot to like here. I particularly enjoy the use of shonky scale models whenever the proceedings venture outside – models like this were an integral ingredient of Mister Roger’s Neighbourhood – and there are nice performances from all concerned.
But, perhaps not surprisingly, it’s Hanks who takes the lion’s share of the attention here, portraying Fred Rogers as an intense, engimatic and (it must be said) faintly creepy guy, who appears to have the wisdom of the ages simmering quietly within him. Check out the moment when Fred and Lloyd enjoy ‘a minute’s silence’ in a cafe. For a very long space of time, Hanks just stares intently into the camera lens and somehow succeeds in giving me chills. Odd then, that his recent Oscar nomination was in the ‘best supporting actor’ category.
This is by no means a perfect film, and better knowledge of its subject matter would help no end, but it’s nonetheless worth catching, even if (like us, on this snowy Edinburgh afternoon) you have to walk through a blizzard to see it. A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood? That’s rich!