A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood movie review: Tom Hanks’ Mister Rogers film offers compassion as antidote to cynicism
Todd Phillips’ Joker showed us monsters are not born, they are made. They are made by a could-not-care-less society on the brink of a neo-liberal abyss — a society where the rich and the powerful have deserted the marginalised to linger in their misery. In such a dehumanising world, even monsters can become heroes. Offering a more positive role model and an antidote to the cruelty, cynicism,chaos of Joker is Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a film we need more than ever to remind us goodness and kindness still exists in our world — or at least did exist when Mister Rogers was the friendliest neighbour to millions of children through their formative years.
For audiences who may not be familiar with the man or the show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a TV series which ran for over three decades in the US. Hosted by beloved TV personality Fred Rogers, it featured songs, stories, and puppet segments intended to help shape the minds of young children at a time when TV was still used as an instrument of positive change.
But A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not a biopic on Mister Rogers. It centers its story on Tom Junod (renamed Lloyd Vogel, and played by Matthew Rhys), a cynical investigative reporter who is sent to write a profile on Rogers (Tom Hanks) for an Esquire series on American heroes. Vogel is man whose daddy issues are spilling over into his domestic life as he himself becomes a father. He shares our own never-meet-your-heroes cynicism, and hopes to separate Mister Rogers, the man, from Mister Rogers, the myth. But the more time he spends with Rogers, the more he realises the man and the myth are inseparable. Devoid of ego or pretension, Rogers surprises Vogel with his contagious kindness and his genuine concern for fellow human beings, and in the process, teaches him a vital lesson in forgiveness.
Heller frames the film like an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. It begins with him greeting us with the familiar theme song, as he changes into his sneakers and zips up his red cardigan sweater.
The film also recreates the toy-box aesthetic of the show, replacing panoramic shots of New York with a miniature model of the city. However, not all these narrative devices are as effective. For example, a dream sequence which sees Vogel come to terms with his repressed childhood trauma feels like a misplaced Jan Svankmajer puppet nightmare.
As Mister Rogers turns to the camera to tell us Vogel’s story of redemption, he teaches us — like he did in over 900 episodes — on how to deal with our emotions. Rhys’ Vogel shows how the inability to forgive can create a vicious cycle of resentment within families. By allowing his anger at his absentee father to fester,he gradually grew more and more cynical of the world around him, before Rogers shows him how to break the cycle by countering this cynicism with compassion.
Of course, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood never feels like a syrupy sermon. Even as Heller commits Mister Rogers’ heroism to celluloid, she does not let herself be shackled down by a simple feel-good sentimentality. Instead, she braids together empathy and introspection for a lesson on the importance of emotional intelligence — how to recognise and manage emotions, and understand the way they guide our thoughts, perspectives, and behaviours.
It is hard to believe Mister Rogers inhabited our world once. For at least two hours, the film makes us believe he is an attainable ideal. But the fact Joker has 11 Oscar nominations compared to only one of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Hanks for Best Supporting Actor) proves we are living in truly cynical times.