Friday, May 29, 2020

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: Review

Like most Indian viewers of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, I didn’t grow up with Mister Rogers. I did, however, grow up with Tom Hanks. Woven into my childhood and adolescence are memories of watching, for the first time, in some haphazard order, Splash, Toy Story, Apollo 13, Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, That Thing You Do, Sleepless in Seattle and Saving Private Ryan. And so, in the absence of any deep association to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, it was Hanks’ craft and innate decency I responded to as I watched Marielle Heller’s film.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood has a simple, slightly self-defeating, foundation: it begins with the assumption that Fred Rogers was a saint. A cynical journalist, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is asked to profile him, and decides to turn up something that will puncture the beloved children's show host's image (Vogel is based on real-life journalist Tom Junod, who profiled Rogers for Esquire in 1998). Vogel is the only person in the film who doesn’t venerate Rogers, but the host seems intrigued by him and his troubled relationship with his alcoholic father. In his gentle, persistent way, he hammers away at the writer’s defenses. Vogel’s ostensibly the master interviewer, but it’s Rogers who seems to unlock his psyche every time they meet.

An American institution himself, Hanks has been playing other American institutions of late. His Walt Disney in Saving Mr Banks was unmemorable; his riff on newspaper editor Ben Bradlee, in The Post, tart and bracing. Hanks has been compared to Jimmy Stewart for most of his career but in A Beautiful Day, with his side-parted hair and sweater, he actually looks like the old Hollywood star. In one scene, he does a voice that sounds an awful lot like Stewart. And he opens one sentence with “I… I… I… I… I" – the heart of any Stewart impersonation.

Hanks stretches his already relaxed speech rhythms to match the TV host’s, but doesn’t strain to transform himself further. This would be a benign turn if it wasn’t for the actor’s watchfulness, the sense he gives that Rogers is peering into the soul of whoever he’s speaking to. Heller perhaps pushes the idea too far by employing frequent closeups of Hanks and the stricken-looking Rhys, the saddest face on TV in six seasons of The Americans. But the way Hanks uses little more than perfectly timed pauses to suggest the intelligence and determination beneath Rogers’ avuncular persona is nothing short of masterful.

Vogel’s unhappiness is straight out of the Hollywood playbook: he resents his father (a blustery Chris Cooper), a drunk who abandoned his late mother, and who’s now dying. The film’s suggestion that deep-seated emotional scars can be unlocked and cured with puppets and kind words feels disingenuous – and very Oscar season. Heller’s use of stop-motion to make actual events look like Rogers’ show’s set is whimsically pleasing, but doesn’t cohere into an idea. There are, however, small moments of warmth: musicians surprising Rogers with a pizzicato version of one of his songs; Hanks struggling with a tent in a brilliant bit of physical comedy; a train compartment spontaneously breaking out into “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?"

Nothing in Heller’s film is as moving as the adults who see Rogers and are transformed, for an instant, into children taking instruction. The man himself ends the film as he began it: known to everyone and yet unknowable. The last scene is Rogers at the piano, playing as the set is dismantled. He stabs the lower keys – his way of releasing difficult feelings – before returning to the melody he was playing. The film spends all its time exploring the darkness in Vogel, but the real challenge might have been to show the occasional violent pounding, however fleeting, in Rogers.

This review appeared in Mint.

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