Reviewed by Jan Hardy, Library Specialist.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (DVD-8112)
Matthew Rhys, Tom Hanks, Chris Cooper, Susan Kelechi Watson (2019)
(Rated PG) It’s rare that any movie makes you want to be a better person. This one had that effect on me, thanks to Tom Hanks’ careful and deliberate portrayal of Fred Rogers. Hanks spoke about the pressure of playing such a beloved icon, and described meeting someone on an elevator in Pittsburgh during the filming. “He got out before me and as the door was closing, he turned and looked at me and he said, ‘We take Mister Rogers very seriously here.’ His eyes were snake-like for a second and I’m thinking, I believe I have been threatened in the City of Three Rivers.”
But as the director Marielle Heller says, Tom Hanks has the “sincerity and authenticity” to make it work. The plot also plays off the doubt and cynicism of Matthew Rhys’ character Lloyd, an Esquire journalist assigned to write a profile of Fred Rogers for an issue on American heroes. He’s just written an expose taking down another celebrity, and his editor says Rogers is the “only person on our list willing to be profiled by you.” “I’m supposed to go easy on him because he plays with puppets for a living?” Lloyd snarls. His editor answers, “400 words. Be nice.” When his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) hears about his assignment, she worries, “Oh God, Lloyd, please don’t ruin my childhood.”
“A Beautiful Day” recreates Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, with Joe Negri-like piano, the Neighborhood Trolley, and well-worn puppets. All the movie’s transitions between Pittsburgh and New York come through model planes flying over miniature skylines. Most of the story, though, centers around Lloyd’s broken relationship with his father and his apparent numbness now that he and his wife have an infant son. We learn that Lloyd’s father Jerry (Chris Cooper) abandoned his family years ago, leaving Lloyd to take care of his sick, dying mother. Jerry reappears at a family wedding with his new wife and Lloyd is furious; the two exchange angry words and even punches.
Lloyd flies to Pittsburgh, entering the WQED studios during a “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” filming. On seeing him, Rogers immediately stops to say hello and introduces everyone to his new friend, frustrating crew members who are already behind schedule. “He’s ruining my life!” one mutters. “We can’t fire him, can we?” another says. Back on the set, Mr. Rogers struggles with a camping tent, and viewing the footage, decides to leave it in. “Children need to know that even when adults make plans, sometimes they don’t turn out the way we hoped.”
Throughout the movie, Lloyd tries to interview Fred Rogers, who uses his listening skills, empathy and loving attention to turn the emphasis back to the interviewer. Lloyd is intrigued and finds himself unable to write a short profile. Back in New York, he tells his editor “He’s a lot more complex than I thought.” He watches tapes of Fred Rogers’ show and a guest appearance on Arsenio Hall, then receives a call from Rogers who is visiting New York to film an episode with a string quartet. Lloyd watches Rogers at work, and meets his wife Joanne. When he asks what it’s like to live with a saint, she says “If you think of him as a saint, then his way of being is unattainable. You know, he works at it, all the time. It’s a practice. He’s not a perfect person. He’s got a temper. He does things every day. Reads Scripture. Swims laps. Prays for people by name.”
Again Lloyd attempts to interview Rogers, asking him if people telling him their problems are a burden on him. Rogers graciously thanks him for his compassion, and you can see Lloyd reacting with surprise that he might be a compassionate person. Lloyd persists, asking Rogers how he deals with anger. Rogers says he can “swim fast” or “pound piano keys,” and asks Lloyd “Do you ever talk to anyone about the burden you carry?” The question echoes Mr. Rogers’ song, “What do you do with the mad that you feel?” only phrased for grown-ups, and it’s a question Lloyd can’t yet answer.
We see Rogers following his routines, and imagine him centering himself through each one. There’s an amazing scene in a cafe where he asks Lloyd to “take a minute and think of all the people who loved us into being.” It’s a moment that could be cheesy in less expert hands, but director Marielle Heller holds it long enough to let the audience take that minute, too. It’s one of the many emotional risks in the film, ones that perhaps won’t translate to the page as I write this review. You’ll just have to trust me.
If you haven’t already seen this movie, here’s my review in a nutshell: See it. It’s not only my favorite “Filmed in Pittsburgh” movie, it’s one of my all-time favorites. I don’t know if it’s made me a better person, but at least it’s given me inspiration to try.