At the Movies with Alan Gekko: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood “2019”

At the Movies with Alan Gekko: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood “2019”

MPAA Rating: PG/Genre: Biographical Drama/Stars: Matthew Rhys, Tom Hanks, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper, Maryann Plunkett, Enrico Colantoni, Wendy Makkena, Tammy Blanchard, Noah Harpster, Christine Lahti, Carmen Cusack, Jessica Hecht, Maddie Corman, Daniel Krell/Runtime: 109 minutes

I think it can be safely said that long before we took a trip down to Sesame Street and got taken to Elmo’s world, long before a stuffed dinosaur named Barney came alive and gave kids nightmares, and long before we were introduced, through narration by George Carlin no less, to a really useful engine named Thomas and his friends on the Island of Sodor, there was the show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. A show that not only was an essential part of my childhood, but also that of my friends and siblings and I’m willing to bet a fair majority of yours as well dear reader. Sure it might not have had the distinction in its later years that other shows for kids did, but to the show’s credit the lessons it taught were timeless, it had an annoyingly upbeat theme song that won’t leave my head for the life of me, and most crucial of all, it inspired an amazing parody on SNL featuring Eddie Murphy that still inspires tears of laughter. Of course, as we all got older it wouldn’t surprise me if there were times where watching it as teenagers we every now and then mercilessly poked fun at its titular host, but thankfully when we as adults finally grew up and some of us even had our own kids I am glad to say we (hopefully) realized the error of our ways, comprehended the purpose the man had in our lives, and have come to hold him in extremely high regard. It is that high regard incidentally that is literally present in darn near every single minute of the slice of cinema I am reviewing for you today in the form of 2019’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. A film that showcases not just the way that Rogers made an impact on dozens of young people’s lives, but even more so how this genuine one-of-a-kind human being aided a particular adult in both coming to grips with the pain, trauma, and scars in his life as well as finally beginning to heal from the events that inflicted them in the first place. Indeed, in case you hadn’t already put two and five together, this slice of cinema is not a biopic of Rogers’ life. Rather, it’s concentration is on a key moment in the year 1998 where a magazine writer for Esquire did a profile on Rogers and found the assignment transformed into a long-term friendship through Rogers really inspiring the writer to take steps to rethink and subsequently rebuild his life for the better. Yet even with that in mind, it should still be said that this is truly worth seeing. Indeed, there might be a few issues here and there, but thanks to truly gripping and emotionally potent work on both sides of the camera, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood still manages to be a quite soulful and emotional narrative about the impact a single person can have when they show a wounded soul how to recover from the pain of the past and move on even when it doesn’t look like that’s possible.

The plot is as follows: Taking us all the way back to the not so long-ago year of 1998 (in the opinion of this writer anyway), A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood gets underway by showcasing for us a situation that might not be that…well beautiful. That being our introduction to our main character who takes the shape and form of a member of the journalism community by the name of Lloyd Vogel. Lloyd, we rather quickly learn, is a thriving workaholic who also happens to be suffering from an extreme case of cynicism. A case that quickly makes it’s root cause apparent when, whilst at his sister’s third wedding, we see that Lloyd crosses paths with his long-estranged father who he has long harbored massive amounts of both fury and resentment towards for reasons that are best left for the film itself to explain. To say that this reunion goes well would be a bit of a lie. Actually, it results in no more and less than a fairly petty and brutal bout of fisticuffs right there at the reception and sees both parties walking away with some fairly gnarly new scars both physical and emotional that weren’t there the day before. At any rate, we soon see that the day after this Lloyd’s editor decides, in his view at any rate, to throw salt on his wounds both physical and psychological, by having him take on a rather unorthodox assignment. That being to write a 400-word piece on no less an individual than (you guessed it) the iconic Fred Rogers aka Mister Rogers. Suffice it to say that, following some back and forth with his editor, we see our grumpy and cynical hero make the trip to Pittsburgh to interview Rogers only to find his cynical ways swiftly thwarted by Rogers’ distinct mix of compassion, empathy, and concern. Yet while Lloyd desperately tries to get to the bottom of who Rogers is as a person, we see that Rogers has other ideas. Namely he is going to figuratively take Lloyd by the hand and set his heart on a journey. One that will hopefully inspire our hero, much like the kids who tune in to Rogers’ show, to learn how to bring his walls down, drop his cynicism off at the curb, and begin at long last to heal from the pain of the past so it can no longer inflict itself upon his present or even have a chance to destroy his future. As for how successful he is and what comes of this…I think I’ll leave that for you to discover dear reader….

Now it should be noted that, for all the good behind the camera, there is one element that I suspect will prove to be a wee bit disappointing. That being that this story, for as touching and moving as it is, is also extremely predictable. Indeed right from the word go there is not a single minute that passes by where you are not aware of just how this slice of cinema’s narrative is going to play out. Having said that though, I do appreciate how in many respects what this film has managed to accomplish from a behind the camera perspective is giving audiences a slice of cinema that looks and very much feels like we are getting a feature-length episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for older children (or adults as I am told they are called) that was only recently discovered. Indeed, not only is this seen in such ways as some of Rogers’ iconic puppets such as King Friday XIII and Daniel Tiger making appearances, but we also get the music from Rogers’ show beautifully played throughout and even the utilization of miniatures to represent the different settings that pop up throughout the film respectively is sure to bring a smile onto the faces of the more wistful viewers out there amongst you. Suffice it to say that not only does this really invigorate the movie as a whole, but also the wonderful amount of heart it is playing with as well even when things get more emotional. To be sure, there are some more distinct elements at play here and yet these moments might seem out of place for a movie dealing with this subject matter, but nevertheless they are handled quite well. Perhaps the key example of these moments is a rather….unusual (to put it mildly) dream sequence which takes place in Rogers’ land of make believe that feels less like something Mr. Rogers would give an audience and more like something an film helmer like Spike Jonze would due to how odd and unreal it is. With all of that in mind though, perhaps the most potent moment that the team behind the camera manages to conjure up for us is a scene where we see Rogers ask our main character to just stop for a minute and silently think about all the people who have ever loved him in his life. A moment that culminates in the packed restaurant (filled with a lot of people who were significant individuals in the life of the real Mr. Rogers incidentally) going quiet as well thus offering each and every one of us as movie goers the chance to do what Lloyd is doing. Suffice it to say that this is not only a wonderful example of a film interacting with its audience, but it also proves to be a simple yet profound example of who Rogers was as a person to say nothing of how he approached life period.

Of course, perhaps the biggest element that ensures that this slice of cinema works on the level that it is ultimately able to would be the work done by the truly talented cast of players in front of the camera in bringing their respective characters to life. This starts with the work done by Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers, but in the name of fairness I think you should know that this is definitely a supporting performance. With that being said though, it should come as no surprise to learn that Hanks is absolutely phenomenal in this film in not only capturing the Rogers movie goers remember right down to the sweaters and sneakers he wore to say nothing of his warmth and soft-spoken cadence, but also in showing us what really challenged Rogers as a human being. Indeed there are moments where Lloyd goes a bit too far with his questions and you can see, via Hanks’ performance, that Rogers is struggling not to get upset about it. Yet with a phenomenal degree of nuance and talent, Hanks is able to show us how Rogers is able to proactively transform the anger into decency and kindness. Indeed he’s not refusing his emotions or pushing them to the side. Rather, he’s simply doing everything he can to be the better person and it is the showcasing of that which makes this a truly mesmerizing performance. Suffice it to say that Tom Hanks has long been one of the best actors of his generation and here he does a fantastic job at not only being the Rogers that we all knew and adored growing up, but also in permitting us to look behind the curtain and view the Rogers who did everything in his power to be this genuinely decent man all the time even while being constantly aware of the level of effort that it took to do so. With that in mind though, the man this slice of cinema is really following is Lloyd Vogel and Matthew Rhys does a fantastic job in his portrayal of the man. Indeed the character of Vogel is a rather difficult one to play because of all the emotional baggage constantly weighing the guy down which, as a result, can see him make choices and do things that result in him being at times a wee bit on the unlikeable side. Having said that though, Rhys does a wonderful job at not only making this guy someone you can relate to despite his snarky and grumpy exterior, but also at showing him through the time he spends with Rogers slowly but surely starting to abandon his bitterness, cynicism, and pain and begin to trade it in for kindness, decency, good-heartedness, and ultimately perhaps even a degree of forgiveness as well. Suffice it to say it is a fantastic performance and one that might even tug at your heartstrings just a bit as the film goes along as well. Thus when you also factor in wonderful work from such screen talent as the always phenomenal Chris Cooper who is really gripping here, Tammy Blanchard, Susan Kelechi Watson, Christine Lahti, and a quite emotional turn here from Jessica Hecht to name but a few it is clear that this slice of cinema’s cast are all top-flight in every sense of the word and they all do a grand job at not only bringing their characters vividly to life, but in paying tribute to Rogers and his legacy as well.

All in all there have been many people who inspired the world to try and be the best that it could be, but of all those people I can safely say that few of them ever did so with such heart, honesty, and general goodness as Fred Rogers. Yes the man may have been a soft of tone articulator, but the level of impact he had on the world around him was nothing less than phenomenal. Indeed I think it is safe to say that no matter who you are, there is always something that Fred Rogers discussed on his show at some time or another that you could take something away from and then apply for the better to your own life in some key way. Suffice it to say then that if you are looking for a biopic to this amazing man then you might be just a tad bit disappointed with this slice of cinema because that’s not what this is. Fear not though because you should definitely check out the 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Just make sure to bring the tissues when you do. Trust me: you’ll thank me later. On the other hand however, if you are the kind of movie goer who is more intrigued by a slice of cinema that operates as a from the heart tribute to a man who was seemingly 110% empathy, kindness, decency, and heart and then used that to better the lives of people across the planet then I definitely think you will lovingly accept this genuinely sweet slice of cinema. Sure it has some issues, but the work done behind the camera is well-done in making this feel very much like a feature-length episode of Rogers’ timeless show in many respects and the work done in front of the camera by this slice of cinema’s gifted cast is equally as emotionally potent right down to the next-level work by Tom Hanks who proves to be perfect casting in the role of Mister Rogers. Thus no it might not be a perfect slice of cinema by any stretch, but A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood still proves to be a lovely stroll around the block of yesteryear in the hope that maybe we can pick something up there to use in our lives today. On a scale of 1-5 I give A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood a solid 4 out of 5.


1 Comment

  1. Ann

    Dear Writer, picture it…a beautiful little small town theater, complete with a painted sky mural on the ceiling. This is where we went to watch this movie. It was a lovely trip down memory lane, experiencing the puppets in the land of make believe was very nostalgic. I too enjoyed the scenes with the miniature houses and streets. The movie was very touching as it portrayed the grace with which Fred helped this man to find a new lens to observe his world through. It was a great story to experience,
    I enjoyed it thoroughly!

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