A Beautiful Day In the Neighbourhood is a movie that fits its title perfectly. A pleasant film that gives you the warm fuzzies, it’s gorgeously shot by director Marielle Heller and competently acted by all involved. It’ll make you cry happy tears, and you’ll leave the theatre determined to do something nice for someone you love. Having said that, like a pleasantly sunny day in May, it’s enjoyable in the moment, but it likely won’t leave a lasting impression.
A Beautiful Day documents the relationship between iconic children’s entertainer Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) and an ornery reporter named Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys). As the film opens, Lloyd is at a personal and professional crossroads. His wife Andrea, played by the luminous Susan Kelechi Watson, has just given birth to their first child. While it’s clear Lloyd loves his partner and child, family life isn’t coming naturally to him. Raised by a sick mother and a mostly absent father, Lloyd’s lingering anger about his own childhood keeps him from fully embracing parenthood. While he’s an award-winning journalist, Lloyd’s career is also suffering, because his profiles are so surly, no one will agree to be interviewed by him anymore. Well, no one except the nicest man in America, Mr. Rogers.
At first, Lloyd bristles at the idea of writing about a children’s entertainer. He finds Fred’s schtick about feelings and kindness saccharine, and he’d prefer to find and expose some seedy truths about the hero. But Lloyd’s snarky armour is no match for the disarming Rogers. With smiles, puppet shoes and sage speeches, Fred starts to win over the ornery writer. When Lloyd suggests Fred’s only taken an interest in him because the TV star likes “broken people,” Rogers replies beatifically, “You’re not broken.” That’s when I started crying and never really stopped…
Sweet, life-affirming messages are the bread and better of this movie. Heller is great at capturing heart-warming moments in a fresh way. For example, the film makes great use of dream sequences as a means of developing Lloyd’s character, demonstrating the reporter’s inner life, and how Fred’s influence inspires epiphanies.
But, as fully realized as Lloyd feels, the film’s portrayal of Fred falls flat. Understandably, it’s tempting to canonize Rogers rather than explore the real person. While his wife Joanne confides in Lloyd that Fred does have “a temper,” and works to overcome his anger, we have to take her word for it. After all, Fred’s cool as a cucumber whenever we see him. Instead, Rogers is presented as a man who has none of his own flaws, but possesses infinite patience for other people’s. It’s a comforting portrayal, but it isn’t exactly helpful. Rather than seeing how Fred defeats the foibles that affect other people, he comes off like a comic book hero whose superpower is being nice to people.
Early on in the movie, there’s a joke that sums up the problems with A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood’s bland take on an American icon. When Lloyd’s wife Andrea learns her husband has been assigned to write about Mr. Rogers, she pleads with her cynical spouse, “Please don’t ruin my childhood.” The light touch with which Heller’s movie treats its hero appears to be trying its best to respect Andrea’s wishes; it captures the magic that made Rogers such a compelling personality, but it never explores the demons he defeated to get there.
Ultimately, A Beautiful Day is the cinematic equivalent to a warm bath. It’s soothing – and it will make you feel cleaner for a while – but it won’t challenge your worldview or teach you anything new. And, that’s okay; it’s nice to be reminded that kindness matters…