“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” Review by Nate and Alex Blake

Nate:

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a story about a jaded journalist named Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) who is assigned by Esquire magazine to write a piece about beloved TV personality Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks). Vogel, based loosely on Esquire journalist Tom Junod, is a bitter man who struggles daily with his tragic childhood. This setup could easily become predictable, cliché, sappy and heavy-handed, but director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever forgive Me?) and screenwriters Micah-Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster avoid easy sentiment. Every touching moment here is earned, and much like an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, it makes powerful statements in a quiet way. This is a sweet film that never becomes cloying.

Alex:

I heard a while ago that this wasn’t quite a Mr. Rogers biopic. In the beginning, I was skeptical of what might be coming. But I think you are right. This story really works. It definitely had the potential to be quite forgettable and formulaic but the screenwriters were able to take a small amount of source material (a 1998 Esquire article called “Can You Say..Hero?”) and turn it into a heart wrenching story of childhood trauma, family, love, and acceptance. The script that Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster created is one of the best of the year. It pays tribute to Mr. Rogers and his quirks while still allowing Tom Hanks to make the character his own.

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Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers

Nate:

Heller structures the film much like an episode of Rogers’ TV show. Flashbacks are cleverly introduced through recurring segments, such as watching a video on Picture Picture. As Vogel and others travel throughout New York City and Pittsburgh, the cities appear to be models similar to the miniature neighborhood in the show’s famous opening credits sequence. There are other surreal elements such as dream sequences that are used to develop Vogel’s character. These are all welcome flourishes that keep the film from feeling like a traditional, straightforward biopic. At a time when I constantly complain about trailers giving away too much, I was delighted to see a much different and better movie than I expected. This could have easily become one of those all-too-common biopics that has one great performance at its core and is a mess in every other way. I’m relieved to say that’s not the case.

Alex:

I was not a Mr. Rogers kid growing up. Hell, I don’t think I ever watched PBS until well into adulthood. However, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood has become so iconic in our society I know enough to recognize how awesome it was for Heller to use the show as a framing device to tell this story. It really helped to lighten a film that is otherwise quite dark at times. It also gave it a very nostalgic feeling. This directorial choice allowed the audience to find a sense of childhood, which is what Mr. Rogers preached during his storied television career. It was a really simple way for Heller to pay tribute to Fred Rogers in a story that isn’t totally about him.

 Nate:

In my opinion, Heller absolutely deserves to be recognized as one of the year’s five best directors.  If you compare this film with Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which came out just last year, the stylistic differences are stark. I’m not arguing that one is better than the other. The point is Heller has proven that she is a director to watch and one who has turned in two impressive works in a relatively short time.

Alex:

I agree that Heller has really demonstrated she is a versatile director. Her approach to “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” was very straightforward. That’s not to say it was bad. It just wasn’t anything special in my opinion. With this film, she really demonstrated a whole new set of skills we have not seen from her before. And I swear to god, if there is not a woman nominated in the directing category this year I will literally riot.

Tom Hanks (Finalized)
Director Marielle Heller and Tom Hanks on the set of the Sony Pictures film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”

 Nate:

The cast is universally great. Hanks presence is a supporting one, but what an impressive turn it is. He inhabits the role without attempting to do an exact impression. I prefer that when actors are playing real-life figures. When actors and actresses try to do exact impressions, it usually borders on (and sometimes crosses into) parody. The awards buzz generating around this performance is deserved, and I hope we finally get to see Hanks nominated for an Oscar again after 18 years of being snubbed. It’s his most subtle performance yet, and maybe that’s what will finally get him another nomination. Matthew Rhys is also great, and the trailers really held back on revealing much about his character. Also absent from the trailers was Chris Cooper, who plays Llyod’s father Jerry. Cooper has long been one of my favorite actors and the scenes between him and Rhys alone are worth the price of admission.

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Matthew Rhys as Lloyd Vogel
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Chris Cooper as Jerry Vogel

Alex:

A different cast would have made this story completely different. The casting was perfectly done for these roles. I really enjoyed Tom Hanks portrayal of Rogers. It was reminiscent of the larger than life man, but he was still able to make it a unique performance. He was not simply mimicking Mr. Rogers. This is not a performance I would have trusted with anyone other than Tom Hanks. Matthew Rhys was also spectacular. He had to portray a man dealing with a lot of emotional turmoil and he did it masterfully. You were really able to experience the darkness of this character while still having empathy for his struggle. The supporting cast was also great. Chris Cooper, Susan Kelechi Watson, Maryann Plunkett, and Enrico Colantoni all gave memorable performances.

Nate:

This is a time of the year when so many shallow, glittery and obnoxious holiday movies will try and fail to manipulate audiences into feeling something. If you want a warm and inspiring movie to see this season, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a rare one that works.

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