It’s Mister Rogers I Like. The Movie? Not As Much.

20 Nov

beautiful day in the neighborhood posterAt the recent screening when I saw A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, I was unlucky enough to sit next to a couple of chatty millennials, who spent nearly the entire movie making comments to each other and being a bit of a distraction.

On the one hand, it kinda sucked; those two definitely affected my movie-going experience.

But on the other hand, I really couldn’t blame them.

After all, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood went off the air on August 31, 2001, just before my seatmates were probably old enough to watch and appreciate it. Mister Rogers himself passed away less than two years later, on February 27, 2003. So I chose to attribute these twentysomethings’ lack of engagement in what was going on on-screen to the fact that Mister Rogers hadn’t had the same effect on their lives that he had on mine — and on the lives of so many other people around my age and older, who grew up with him and his daily TV show. Because of this, I suspect my seat mates were just less invested in the movie than I was.

As a result, rather than be angry about the distraction, I found myself feeling sorry for these kids.

mister rogersNot that you had to grow up with Mister Rogers to appreciate his gentle soul and the ease he had with children of all ages. The way he related to every person he came in contact with and made them feel important and loved.

It’s no surprise that the marketing for Beautiful Day had a tie-in with World Kindness Day, because kindness was one of Mister Rogers’ core values. He was, as Tom Junod recently wrote, “a symbol of human possibility,” and had a positive spirit and inspirational goodness rarely seen in society. Simply stated, Mister Rogers made us want to be better people.

All of this (and more) was covered in Morgan Neville’s great documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which is the top-grossing biographical documentary ever produced, and which won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary Feature earlier this year.

If you’ve seen that film, you may think you don’t need to see Beautiful Day. And you may be right. This one tells a nice story, but it doesn’t really add much more to what we already know. That said, thankfully, the two aren’t redundant.

Rather than a biopic about the man himself, this new film is actually about Mister Rogers’ impact on others. Specifically, it’s inspired by an excellent and iconic Esquire article Junod wrote for the November 1998 issue, which was all about American heroes. “Inspired,” because while many details of the film’s story are factual, there have been a few significant liberties taken.

In the film, Tom Junod has been changed to “Lloyd Vogel” (and is played by The Americans’ Matthew Rhys). Lloyd is a cynical magazine writer and new father whose relationship with his own father (Chris Cooper) is tenuous at best, because Lloyd’s father is an alcoholic who left Lloyd’s mother when she was dying of cancer.

It’s a bit of a mismatch, then, when Lloyd is assigned by his editor to write a short, 400-word profile of Mister Rogers for the aforementioned “Heroes” issue — and Lloyd knows it. More comfortable writing investigative pieces, Lloyd thinks maybe he’ll dig up some dirt about this seemingly perfect television personality. (“Don’t ruin my childhood,” his wife implores him.) But wouldn’t you know it, Mister Rogers’ unceasing kindness gets through to Lloyd, and against all odds, the two become friends over the course of many conversations.

The whole movie is framed as an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, with all the elements you remember in place, each one lovingly recreated — from Picture Picture to Mr. McFeely to the Land of Make Believe to the model neighborhood.

And as you know if you’ve seen any bit of the marketing for this movie, Mister Rogers is played by Tom Hanks.  That casting couldn’t be any better. America’s Dad brings so much innate goodness to the role, and he gives a predictably memorable performance.

It would be easy for Hanks to coast through this movie on the goodwill audiences bring to the film — and to be sure, there are scenes where he comes close to doing just that. But it’s undeniable just how charming his portrayal is. Nearly every time Hanks as Mister Rogers comes on screen, his presence is heartwarming.

Really, it’s quite magical.

beautiful day in the neighborhoodCan it all be a bit too corny? Yes. But you’re awfully cold hearted if the film doesn’t bring a smile to your face multiple times. Even during the scene where a subway car full of New York City school kids notice Mister Rogers and burst into an enthusiastic rendition of his show’s theme song. (Something that actually happened, apparently.)

While the positive spirit of Mister Rogers permeates every aspect of this movie, it’s to the credit of screenwriters Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue, and director Marielle Heller, that he is portrayed here not as a saint, but as a real human being. To wit: He’s so concerned with helping people that he often lingers too long and (amusingly) gets on the nerves of other people around him, including his production crew and his wife. And he’s so single-minded about seeing the good in people that he’s almost oblivious to the real world around him. But that’s who Mister Rogers was. As he notes in the movie, and said elsewhere: Nobody is perfect.

And yet, while Mister Rogers has been at the heart of the film’s marketing, and is the heart and soul of the movie, our “hero” is, in fact, relegated to a supporting role. And that’s part of the film’s problem. Lloyd is a bit of an unlovable grump, his character arc is a bit predictable, and Rhys’ performance just isn’t as compelling, relative to Hanks’ and to audience expectations. When Beautiful Day focuses solely on Lloyd and his story (which is a lot, given that the movie is telling his story), it limps along.

Really, Beautiful Day is at its best when it focuses on the two men talking. In these scenes, Mister Rogers teaches Lloyd — and us — important lessons about love, patience, and being a good person. Everybody’s got their something. We’re all living with our own challenges. But we can be kind. It’s a message that gets through loud and clear, and that we just don’t hear enough nowadays.

When the lights came up at my screening, I hoped the millennials sitting next to me heard that message. I hope they will be kind to their seatmates the next time they’re in a similar situation.

I’m giving A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood a B.

One Response to “It’s Mister Rogers I Like. The Movie? Not As Much.”

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