When I was growing up in 60s suburbia, the kids next door were not allowed to watch Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Their mother thought Rogers was hypnotizing children, making them pliable to some nefarious message he would impart when she stepped away from the TV.
Yes, Mrs Pfister, Roger’s show did have a hypnotic effect, but watching it was more like staring at a fish tank than being enthralled by some heathen. Rogers was a big, flat angelfish, calmly, methodically, circling a castle which smaller puppet and trolley fish would dart in and out of. I wasn’t absorbing messages about death and anger, I was just waiting for Rogers to stop babbling so I could giggle at King Friday’s lisp and try to figure out the trolley’s bell-speak.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood gives Fred Rogers the kind of influence Mrs Pfister feared, a power the real man would have been embarrassed to have attributed to him. But Tom Hanks has no compunctions about wielding power on screen in the guise of largess, so he pumps himself full of another American hero and breaths out life-changing wisdom.
Despite the marquee name(s) involved, the actual lead in this movie is supposed to be an Esquire magazine writer named Lloyd Vogel (played by Matthew Rhys), a dour grouch who spends a not-so-beautiful week in the neighborhood as Mr Rogers relentlessly therapies the daddy issues out of him. Hanks’ Rogers, you see, is not just kind, he’s clairvoyant, and instantly recognizes damaged souls. Lloyd’s was damaged when he was a boy and watched his father desert the family when their mother was terminally ill.
The therapy comes as Lloyd tries to interview Rogers for an article on American heroes. Instead of answering Lloyd’s questions, Rogers constantly turns the inquiry the other way, insisting Lloyd talk about his feelings of anger toward his father. Yet when Lloyd asks Rogers a perfectly legitimate question about the burden of responsibility Rogers carries for children, Rogers just jams his hand up King Friday, silently claiming executive privilege. People who answer questions with questions are universally annoying, so why does the movie give this quality to a man they otherwise present as a saint? If you’re going to say Rogers was more complex than he appeared, give us more than a silent stare from Hanks. He’s a great actor, but not telepathic.
The director, Marielle Heller, who avoided the saccharine so adroitly in her last film, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, does a lot to bring quirky style and humor to the proceedings. She frames the movie with a clever device, Rogers presenting us Lloyd’s tedious story as an episode of his TV show. She uses miniature sets as transitions between locales, but keeps them in the aesthetic of low-budget Public Television, so it’s fun to imagine Wes Anderson cringing. In the best bit, she shrinks Lloyd down and puts him in the puppet set with Daniel the Tiger and King Friday, who badger him about his issues, and we get a glimpse of a weirder, funnier and more interesting movie. But someone got to Heller, and Beautiful Day ends up as emotionally manipulative as movies get. Rogers heals Lloyd, of course, and the father-son reconciliation is facilitated by a convenient illness. Melancholy Cat Stevens-y ballads come in exactly when they do in other sentimental films, and the ending is as mushy as pancakes left too long in syrup.
I don’t have a problem with emotional manipulation in movies. That’s what you go for. I cry like a baby at every damn movie that wants me to, exactly when it wants me to, and feel fine after. But authentic emotion in this film only sticks when it touches what we already know about Fred Rogers and his work, such as the reenactment of his exchange with a sick boy, the real version of which we saw last year in the wonderful documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?.
This narrative is based on a real writer, a jaded journalist with a chip on his shoulder and an ax to grind who happened to cross paths with an exemplary person who showed him some sustained kindness. He was left so impressed he glorified Rogers in a magazine article, something Rogers certainly deserved. Adapting the story into a movie – and casting an actor like Hanks – has taken Rogers up to an even loftier position, past who the real man was and would have been comfortable with. Hanks, with his pinched features closer to King Friday than Fred Rogers, pries Lloyd open via sly, almost insidious means, by withholding and teasing. The real Rogers chased away darkness with nothing more calculated than his innate brightness.
I know America will eat this film up like a big bowl of chicken soup for the soul with Maury on Tuesdays. The self-help section on Amazon grows in proportion with the ugliness surrounding us, more and more of us reaching for inspiring stories and empowering advice.
It’s admirable that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood wants to satisfy this need. But it’s Fred Rogers, and our collective memory of and nostalgia for Mister Rogers Neighborhood, doing the work, not this narrative and not the actor doing the impersonation. If it’s Mister Rogers you miss and need, stream Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, or spend some time on YouTube watching his interviews. It’s as close as you’ll get to his light.
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