A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood

Year: 2019
Production Co: Big Beach Films
Director: Marielle Heller
Writer: Micah Fitzerman-Blue/Noah Harpster
Cast: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper

A few things had struck me about this movie even before came out. The first one was that despite all the critical anticipation and subsequent praise it received, it didn't seem to make nearly as much of a dent culturally. It might have been because it ended up coming out in the middle of the COVID pandemic. It did okay business, a little more than doubling its money, but after it's release it just seemed to be here and gone just as quickly.

The other thing was that I saw in it a very strange bedfellow in Todd Phillips' Joker. Like Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck asks both his own deranged self and the TV audience he finally has the attention of more than once, what's happened to common, everyday decency?

Early 80s Gotham City with an increasing gulf between rich and poor, a crumbling infrastructure and a failing social contract reminded a lot of us of the political world of the late 2010s, the media becoming increasingly shrill, untrustworthy and partisan and demagogues from Trump on down spouting hatred and division and fracturing entire countries in their wake.

Making a movie about one of the most beloved, tolerant, patient and decent people who it seems ever graced American TV screens in a much simpler and more innocent age almost seemed to be a direct challenge to the times we lived in and ask; what's happened to kindness and decency?

In fact, writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster seem more interested in asking that question than doing any kind of biopic or portrait of Fred Rogers or even one about the reporter tasked with profiling him (based on the true life Esquire article).

Lloyd Vogel (Mathew Rhys) is an overworked but successful young magazine journalist in the late 90s with a pretty wife and baby son, and when his editor tells him to go and contribute to a puff piece on heroes by interviewing Rogers on the set of his kids' show he's less than impressed. He's also, as we learn early on, estranged from his philandering father (Chris Cooper), which seems like unrelated character material but... keep watching.

When he arrives at Rogers' Pennsylvania studio complex, Lloyd is immediately taken – and suspicious – at the way Rogers (Tom Hanks, with only slightly heavy eye make-up to make him look like the late presenter) pays attention to him, seeming to tune the rest of the world out and focus only on their conversation.

He immediately starts behaving as if the pair are old friends, and when the demands of his show get too much and his exasperated crew – who deal with the apparent disruption of Rogers' insistence on giving everyone in the world his full attention when the times comes, just like he does for kids watching – he apologises and insists they meet again to continue their conversation.

While Lloyd tries to navigate the pressures of work, his marriage and family and the negative effect of his father wanting to come back into his life, he spends more time with Rogers but even as their apparent friendship grows, he's more convinced Rogers isn't as accepting and caring as he makes out, sure the older man must have some angle.

But for Rogers' part, it seems like he can almost smell the paternal conflict syndrome on the young reporter, making it his mission to convince Lloyd that everybody no matter how flawed is worthy of our love and respect – even Lloyd's deadbeat dad.

The interplay between the two men is a pleasure to watch and in Hanks' hands, Rogers really comes to life. But director Marielle Heller also isn't afraid to get a little experimental. There are a few dream/daydream sequences where Lloyd imagines himself as being one of the puppets during the Rogers show's signature skits and in one sequence of surreal beauty, sitting in a diner, Rogers asks Lloyd to just think about the people who've come before him in his life for a minute.

The movie itself then stops for what feels like the full minute, all noise from the diner draining away and the camera slowly inching inwards towards Rogers' small, happy smile (Hanks peering directly down the lens). It's calming and disquieting in equal measure, feeling like a man who genuinely cares about you is peering into your soul, seeing what you're most frightened of and will any minute tell you it's going to be okay.

Rhys is a bit hatstand as Lloyd, but that's not such a bad thing because it's Hanks' show, in a role he fits like a glove. In fact he has one of the most interesting character moments right at the end. After being famous for helping kids accept and deal with their emotions, he also explains to Lloyd that one of the healthiest ways to let anger out is to bang on the keys of a piano.

So when the set goes dark after recording one day and Rogers wanders off by himself to play and suddenly crashes his hands on the keys, you wonder what the film is saying. Is the preternaturally calm Rogers sometimes just angry like the rest of us because he's human? Or is it something darker, that a man who helps and understands people for a living has taken on too much of everyone else's anger and cynicism and it's now weighing on him?

Where Arthur Fleck goes on TV, shoots Murray Franklin dead and inadvertently starts Gotham on a path to ruin, might Rogers have banged on a piano to stop himself doing something similar?

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