Cast: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Chris CooperDirector: Marielle Heller
A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is a ‘biopic’ of sorts if one were to go with our colloquial film parlance. Starring Tom Hanks, this film is about a journalist’s life-altering interview with Mr Rogers, a beloved children’s-TV show host. Director Marielle Heller blurs the lines between childhood and adulthood with such remarkable storytelling that it seems nothing short of genius. It is a delightful doffing of the hat to the legacy of kindness.
In the opening shots when you see Tom Hanks as Mr Rogers doing the signature pottering about on the set of his long-running show, changing into his bright red cardigan and blue shoes, it almost appears to be a children’s movie. Before you know it, you are suddenly whizzing down the rabbithole making one startling emotionally-charged discovery after another.
Loosely based on the real-life story of Fred Rogers, host of the popular children’s tv show in America, titled Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and his serendipitous interview with journalist Tom Junod for Esquire, the film does surprise you with the deeper more adult father-son story at the heart of it. Given that Tom Junod’s character is a part-fictional Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) in the film, it allows a fancier flight of imagination. If Rogers was as good as gold then the part-fictional construct that is Vogel helps the story and its dramatis personae.
The writers do a tremendous job of making a straight as an arrow celebrity who delights in being ordinary, come alive on-screen. Small touches like Rogers showing himself struggle when putting up a camping tent and retaining it in the show to make children understand that things don’t always go smoothly in life, make a larger comment on the phenomenon that Rogers was.
A television presenter who despite not following the TV rulebook went on to create television history is certainly a story worthy of being retold but what sets this one apart is that it focuses on him as a medium to help Lloyd Vogel finds his own personal happiness. When Vogel, an investigative journalist assigned to do an interview that he considers a puff-piece first meets Rogers, he is certain that he will be able to dig up some dirt on him. He hunts desperately for the human frailty that will expose Rogers’ sham of being the kindest human being. As it turns out, Vogel’s pursuit and his interactions with Rogers does bring out the host’s more humane side but more significantly, reveals the scribe’s own inner demons.
This emotional play-off between Rogers and Lloyd Vogel makes the film a deeply emotional one and certainly very watchable. It is sort of befitting that Tom Hanks with his indisputable good guy halo plays Rogers. His honest-to-goodness demeanour and earnestness bodes well for the on-screen persona making the character immensely believable. Matthew Rhys’ cynical play of Vogel is the perfect foil to Hanks’ Rogers. In fact, in a clever departure from biopic formulas, this one makes Vogel the central character instead of keeping Rogers at the forefront at all times!
Director Heller’s frequent intercuts between the real world and the make-believe neighborhood with its puppets and toy blocks lends a surreal touch to the film. It feels as though one is witnessing the grown-up protagonists in the story go back to being children under Rogers’ reassuring spell. And while they do snap back to reality, the magic of Rogers’ untainted legacy of kindness leaves you with a warm fuzzy feeling in your heart.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is among those rare films of post-truth era that makes you believe that good people do exist– even among television hosts.
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