Esquire magazine writer Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), known for his bad boy ways, is not amused when his editor Ellen (Christine Lahti), who certainly is amused, assigns him to profile Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) for a special heroes issue. But when he walks onto the iconic Pittsburgh-based set, Lloyd is amazed to see the incredible patience and empathy Rogers treats a young disabled boy with, even as his frustrated crew complains about the 73 minute delay. Rogers finally gets an affectionate response and Lloyd is about to have “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”
Inspired by the 1998 Tom Junod Esquire article ‘Can You Say…Hero?,’ ‘Transparent’ screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” takes the perspective of a cynic to illustrate the power of Fred Roger’s empathy, insight and innate kindness. Director Marielle Heller ("Can You Ever Forgive Me?") changes her aspect ratio to indicate whether we are watching Rogers onscreen or off, yet uses Rogers’ children’s’ show as a template throughout, his interviews with Lloyd not unlike his interactions with show visitors, location transitions accomplished with miniaturized models based on Fred’s miniaturized neighborhood.
Lloyd is a new father estranged from his own. Attending a family wedding with his wife Andrea ('This Is Us's' Susan Kelechi Watson) and infant son, he is so enraged by his alcoholic dad Jerry’s (Chris Cooper) mention of his late mother, they end up in a fist fight. Lloyd arrives to interview Rogers bearing obvious injuries, and Rogers gently teases out the truth, a truth which upsets the man greatly. What transpires during the course of the film is healing, Rogers firm but gentle hand guiding Lloyd towards listening and forgiveness.
While the story’s arc is entirely expected, Heller finds many small, magical moments that stand out. Unaware that he’s talking to Joanne Rogers (Maryann Plunkett), Lloyd makes the mistake of referring to her husband as a ‘saint,’ only to get schooled in the tremendous hard work and self restraint it requires to be Fred Rogers. We witness how Rogers’ long time producer Margy (Carmen Cusack) is professionally irritated while also being charmed and how his assistant Bill Isler (Enrico Colantoni) uses his former political experience to move Rogers through a crowd without offending his fans. In one of the film’s best scenes, we see Hanks as Rogers discuss the importance of a beloved childhood toy and cannot help but recognize the irony of “Toy Story’s” Woody telling us this.
The most surprising thing that comes through in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is how frequently Fred Rogers led children through the process of grief and loss while imparting hope. Tom Hanks was such an obvious choice for this role, he apparently strenuously resisted it, only caving when his friend Heller took the helm. It will come as no surprise that he is about as perfect as can be recreating the calm, loving decency of the man. While the film cannot hope to equal last year’s extraordinary documentary ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,’ it is a worthy accompaniment, told from a perspective many of us who were too old to watch the show once held.
Robin also gives "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" a B.
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