Notes from the Neighbourhood
It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Marielle Heller, director
Starring Tom Hanks
When I first saw Mr Rogers on television, I think his show was still local to Pittsburgh. I almost didn't see it: as a teenager, I was too old for his target demographic. But I was walking through the family den on the way to somewhere when I noticed my baby sister, who was right in the target age, sitting rapt in front of the set.
'Whatcha watchin', Sis?'
I looked. A slight man with a pleasant face came into the door of a living room set, singing something about how it was a beautiful day and didn't you want to be his neighbour. As he sang, he opened a closet, exchanged his jacket for a sweater, took out his 'tennies', sat down and changed from loafers to tennis shoes, which he tied in front of an audience of preschoolers, and finished his song with a smile that said that he and the kids had just shared a secret.
'Oh, you genius,' I thought. I sat down and watched what I still regard as the most brilliant half-hour of early childhood education ever.
Years passed, people got older, and I was in graduate school. One morning, as Elektra and I walked from our apartment on Ellsworth Avenue toward the Pitt campus, I spotted a slight man with a pleasant face coming out of a building and heading in our direction. It is a fact that I suffer from face blindness, but somehow, I recognised him right away. Just as unusual is what I did next, because I'm allergic to bothering people just because they are 'celebrities'. I would normally mind my own business. Instead, I punched Elektra surreptitiously and whispered, so that she could notice him, too.
Mr Rogers passed us with a smile, a nod, and a 'Hi, neighbour!' Made our day.
A friend of ours, John, was proud of getting his PhD in economics from Carnegie Mellon University, as well he should have been. John was a very serious-minded guy, but we all loved him. We couldn't help chuckling, though, when he showed up at a spring party looking a bit grumpy.
'Congratulations on your doctorate, John! Did the commencement go well?'
Ignoring this, John's default mode was 'grumpy.' 'Who was your speaker?'
John, through gritted teeth, 'Mister. Rogers!'
'Wow, much better than ours. We got Zbigniew Brzezinski, and nobody could understand a word he said. If he'd spoken in Polish, at least some of the audience would have got something out of it.'
Elektra, intuiting the reason for the grumpiness, asked gently, 'John? Did he sing?'
'Did he sing "I Like You as You Are"?'
'YES!' Ah. That explained it. But you know what? He really did like you as you were.
I say all this to explain what kind of baggage we took to the movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood.
I was worried that one of two things would happen: either they'd turn the movie into a hagiography of Fred Rogers, or they'd turn it into a Sunday School lesson. After all, Fred was a reverend. Neither happened, thank goodness. What we got was a subtle and fairly mind-bending exercise in what I privately regarded as cheerful surrealism. And I mean that in a good way.
The plot was borrowed from its source material, an Esquire article by Tom Junod called 'Can You Say Hero?'. When Junod allowed the filmmakers to adapt the article, he asked them to fictionalise his own role in the story, which they did. Lloyd Vogel is the character in this film. He undergoes considerable personal growth – although first, he has to get his face bashed in and have a very strange dream that gives him a unique perspective on the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. That's as it should be. That part of the story is realistic, and the characters pay their dues. The story doesn't overreach, and it has a sense of humour.
The film technique is wonderful. The sets are low-tech but clever as heck, delighting us even as they make us laugh at the toy airplanes flying between toy Pittsburgh and toy New York City. It's what might have happened if Rene Magritte had illustrated a children's story. The music is fun. Best of all is Tom Hanks' portrayal of Fred Rogers: note-perfect voice and mannerisms, but an actor's licence in revealing a hint of the man inside. He must have burdens, frustrations, conflicts. But he chooses not to show them, because he has decided it's his mission to be there for the others. At the end, when he sits in his studio at the end of a working day, playing his piano…when he hits those discordant notes, the ones we understand because he has told us (and, incidentally, a Senate Subcommittee) what you can do with the 'mad' that you feel, we feel that this movie has been a bit more profound than we had any reason to expect.
But the magic moment is the scene in the diner. If you don't go for anything else, go for that one. Fred Rogers actually pulled that stunt on television in front of God and everybody, at the Daytime Emmy Awards, and he made grown actors cry. In the diner scene, Tom Hanks will make you cry, possibly. He will also make you go kind of weird if you notice that trick he's pulling with the direction of his gaze. Trust me: it's worth the ticket price.