' ' Cinema Romantico: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Thursday, December 12, 2019

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

There is a moment in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” when Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks) – or is it Fred Rogers? (or does it matter?) – recounts how a case of childhood bullying helped develop his world-famous empathy. And for a moment, you can imagine this as a more traditional movie, perhaps beginning as Mr. Rogers is about to testify on Capitol Hill and then flashing back to this case of childhood bullying. Director Marielle Heller, however, working from a script by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, is not interested in laying out his life story brick by brick like some prosaic biopic but in capturing the experience of simply being in the presence of Rogers and how, even in his presence, the Mr. Rogers persona was indistinguishable from who he was. That’s why the movie opens with him entering that familiar door and ends with him exiting, meaning that even if we spend as much time with other characters, we are cosmically on his quietly attentive time nonetheless, brought home in Hanks’s performance, which does not mimic that slowed down speaking style of the real Mr. Rogers so much as honor its good intentions.

Heller frames her story through Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a stand-in for real-life journalist Tom Junod who wrote the 1998 Esquire article on which the film is based. That piece proved to be less a profile than an avenue to Junod’s own self-reflection, an idea which “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” honors by making Lloyd the narrative focal point. He suffers from a cantankerousness that is only emphasized when his estranged, good-for-nothing father (Chris Cooper) comes back into his life, a subplot not rendered in any particular illuminating way, no matter how hard Cooper works at it, just a means to give Lloyd a hill to climb with his interview subject becoming something akin to his conversational Sherpa.

If the talks between Mr. Rogers and Lloyd mostly come in standard shot/reverse shot packaging, Heller has a clever way of cutting back and forth in medium shots, imperceptibly drawing you in to the scene’s rhythm before, suddenly, switching to a close-up of Mr. Rogers. On the TV, after all, his intention was to soothe, which is why the camera maintained some distance, and is why Heller’s close-ups are jarring in this truly guttural way, seeing the friendliest of faces looming over Lloyd (looming over us). And if these Tête-à-têtes typically begin with Lloyd trying to pry personal information out of his subject, the unexpected close-ups become an embodiment of how Mr. Rogers turns the tables without Lloyd even knowing, and which Rhys underlines by letting all the guile drain from his air.

In a sense, Lloyd becomes a character on the show even as he’s supposed to be conducting an interview, the lines not just blurring between reality and make-believe, as they do in transition shots of model sets showing of the film’s locations, like Pittsburgh and New York, calling to mind The Neighborhood of Make-Believe, but occasionally doing away with them altogether. In Lloyd’s first on-set visit, he watches Daniel Striped Tiger conversing with Lady Aberlin, and as he does, Lloyd moves to a vantage point where he can see Mr. Rogers maneuvering the Daniel puppet. If this seems to suggest a shattering of the illusion, Lloyd sees it as Mr. Rogers living out what he preaches and how he acts. Later, in an astonishing moment when Heller has Mr. Freaking Rogers go, like, all French New Wave, he asks us to live it out by breaking the fourth wall.

Moments like this last one come perilously to rendering Mr. Rogers as a deity, or a living saint, as Lloyd puts it in one of his queries. “What’s it like being married to a living saint?” he asks Joanne Rogers (Maryann Plunkett), his profile’s spouse. Plunkett’s time on screen is brief but she makes it count, having Joanne look at Lloyd with a blank expression that kind of refuses to take the question seriously and that would be deadpan comedy if you couldn’t tell it was so sincere. In just a few words, she sets Lloyd’s preconceived notions straight, admitting her husband has a temper. It’s not a temper we see, really, perhaps because the movie only allows a couple scenes just in the stead of Mr. Rogers. Hanks, however, quietly hints at it anyway, especially in those famous Rogers-ish pauses, which Hanks utilizes like someone taking a moment to carefully gather his thoughts before proceeding, illustrating his familiar advice of what to do when you get angry. And he honors his own advice in the movie’s last scene, a stunner, which goes on for a few beats longer than you might expect, demonstrating how the show trails into Roger’s life and vice-versa, and how he sometimes seeks the very sort of relief he provides for everyone else.

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