A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood
My knowledge of the life and times of Fred Rodgers is fairly limited, coming mostly through parody’s and memes. Before the viewing of Marielle Heller’s – another artist whose work I am largely unfamiliar with – film, I could only claim to be dimly aware that “Mr Rodgers” was a kids entertainer from the States, who spent decades running a show where he employed puppets, models of buildings and a noticeable red cardigan to talk to children about various issues. I was aware that the production is considered quite iconic in America, and that Rodgers one of that country’s most famous television personalities, especially in the realm of public service broadcasting.
In today’s day and age, to wait 17 years until after someones death to make a film about them is equivalent to an eternity, so I had decent hopes for A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood (damn American spelling), a production that looked like it had the adequate time and distance that I strongly believe such things need. Plus, you know, Tom Hanks remains one of the masters of his craft, maintaining a standard of excellence in acting that means you can give him any part – even one as difficult as this was liable to be – and he will make gold out of it. So, was what I will call A Beautiful Day… from now on able to get past my own lack of in-grained nostalgia for the main subject? Or is this just not designed for an audience that has Bosco in Mr Rodgers’ place?
Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is an acclaimed feature writer for Esquire magazine, struggling with his new family and failing to deal with deep-seeded issues regarding his own father (Chris Cooper). When assigned to write a profile of Fred Rodgers (Hanks), Lloyd initially aims to get past what he see’s as a fake persona of niceness, but over time, comes to realise that his subject is very for real, and that his teachings may be the best way for him to deal with his own depressed feelings.
A Beautiful Day… was a rare film that my girlfriend happened to see before I did. When I asked her what she thought of it, she replied that it “was like a therapy session” before positing that the film was perfect for someone like me. I didn’t really know what she meant until I saw it myself.
Like more people than you probably realise, I am a man with a short temper. I would not go so far as to say I have an anger problem per say, but I am easily irritated and know well enough that the rush that comes with rage has a certain addictive property. Over the years, I have tried numerous things to help manage angry feelings – breathing exercises, visualisations, Simpsons quotes, simply being alone for a short time – and am satisfied that it is not something that dominates my life.
A Beautiful Day… can indeed be described as a therapy session, and more than that I feel that like it is one specifically designed around the topic of anger. Even more specifically, it is one designed around the topic of deep-seeded anger held by men, angry at so many things and brought up to believe that the best thing to do with that anger is to bury it. For that reason it speaks very directly to me. Through this glimpse at Mr Rodgers and the unique way that he approached people, problems and the world, Rhys, Hanks and Heller give the audience that therapy session, and do it wonderfully.
Vogel’s anger drives his life, whether he realises it or not. Rhys gives a good performance as Vogel, who has gotten so used to holding that rage that he seems unable to even envision a life without it. Heller crafts an engaging film where Vogel is led down the garden path by Rodgers, from a position where is actively searching for a way to torpedo what he sees as Rodgers’ facade to one where he has fully embraced what Rodgers is trying to teach him. That pivots around his father, Jerry – an OK Chris Cooper – and Vogel’s journey towards coming to an understanding with his father is the real central narrative of A Beautiful Day…, carried out wonderfully. It’s certainly engaging, and definitely cathartic, as Vogel’s audience surrogate loses his cynicism at the same rate as the actual audience. And, as a biopic, it works in refusing to follow the formula, following the in the mold of things like At Eternity’s Gate or All Is True.
It would be easy for Hanks’ performance here to became an impression, but he seems to become Rodgers in a manner that goes beyond that worry, capturing the really minuscule mannerisms, the body language, the look in the eyes. Those unused to Rodgers, like I was, will undoubtedly at first feel a bit unnerved when presented with this soft-spoken man who speaks in such a strange clipped manner, and who feels comfortable almost immediately asking very personal questions of the person he is talking to. When Rodgers breaks out the puppets one-on-one with Vogel, you’ll be forgiven for wondering if he is half-cracked. But Hanks manages to break past this issue, and an hour or so into A Beautiful Day… you’ll be wishing you were able to grow up with Rodgers in your life, someone so innocent, pure and patient. Some things are deliberately under-noted, like Rodgers’ religion, and this is probably a necessity if a modern audience is to connect with him.
However, I cannot say that the film is a total masterpiece either. There are moments when it begins to groan under its own 110 minute running time, with scenes and sequences that stretch a bit too much, unable to trust in their own ability to get the point across. Ones that stand-out in that regard is when A Beautiful Day… starts to play more directly with the film’s presentation of what is real and what is warped, as Vogel hallucinates in moments of crisis. For Vogel to go from being a person under great strain to being presented as suffering from some kind of mental illness was a little hard to swallow, as was the idea that such problems could be fixed with a few heartfelt conversations.
And there is also the elephant in the room regarding the film’s central problem, that being Vogel’s relationship with his father. For me, the film presents this conflict in terms of a father wanting to make amends for past failures, and a son who feels unable to forgive that father. I am sure I am not the only one who thought that the weight of the narrative was too much on the first part of the equation, that Jerry’s desire for forgiveness outweighed Vogel’s desire to forgive. Vogel’s obstinance in that regard is unquestionably presented as a negative, something that he is looked down on for by his wife, and gently reprimanded about by Mr Rodgers.
Vogel is presented as a man who will be able to know no true happiness until he has decided to forgive his father. The idea that Jerry might be a toxic influence on Vogel’s life that he may have to be excise entirely if Vogel is to have sound mental health is given no apparent consideration. Mr Rodgers’s lesson is that forgiveness is releasing people from the anger we feel towards them, but is it not possible to let go of that anger and still keep those people out of your sphere, for your own betterment?
Heller directs a solid production, which is mostly lacking frills, favouring basic, competent work. A few sequences stand out, some good, some bad. The good is a diner sequence that becomes an impromptu meditative experience, the camera panning slowly past numerous eaters caught up in the moment, or the film’s opening, presented as an episode of Mr Rodgers’ Neighborhood. The bad is real saccharine stuff involving flashbacks and dream sequences, straight out of the Twin Peaks playbook. Heller is on record as having been asked by a lot of people “Please don’t ruin my childhood”, and it is fair to say that the film is both verbally and visually reverent of Rodgers, portraying him as both the lovable man of legend and the production perfectionist. The show’s own sets are used, and its motif of scale-model buildings is often employed as a framing device for various scenes.
There is a moment in the latter half of A Beautiful Day… that is profoundly affecting, when Mr Rodgers invites Vogel to spend exactly one minute meditating silently on “all of the people who loved you into being”, a method by which he hopes that his writer friend will realise that his father is worthy of his forgiveness. The noise, the music, the dialogue ceases, and Rodgers and Vogel sit silently in the room they are in for exactly one minute, with Hanks taking a moment to stare directly into the camera. Both myself and my girlfriend reported total silence in theatres at the same moment: no whispering, no eating, no drinking, just total silence, as those watching became wrapped up in the same moment as the characters on the screen. Such an experience is rare enough in modern film, and speaks to the power of the message that Heller and Hanks are trying to get across. I felt, watching it, a little bit more confident that anger does not have to be the defining emotion of so many men’s lives.
For that, I have to think positively of A Beautiful Day… despite what I would see as some fundamental problems. It’s a very emotionally powerful movie, with strong central performances from both Hanks and Rhys that carry it through some of the dicier parts, be they the films dalliance with warped reality or the simplistic nature of the central argument. It is unique enough in the biopic sub-genre in giving a restrained and basic look at the subject in question, essentially by not making the subject the subject at all. This is the kind of inventive production that biopics should aspire to be, and it proves to be an informal bit of therapy for much of the audience as well. By the conclusion, you will have come to understand why a crowd of people in a subway might choose to serenade Mr Rodgers. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Sony Pictures Releasing).