Just one year ago, director Marielle Heller premiered the caper comedy-drama Can You Ever Forgive Me? at TIFF to wide acclaim, which culminated in Oscar nominations for co-stars Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, plus a further for Best Adapted Screenplay. Heller herself was snubbed for a Best Director nod (in an all-male slate), with some critics seeing the film as overly down-the-line in a category that has in recent years rewarded risk and spectacle.
Well, this is a spectacle. A warm-hearted quasi-biopic focused on the Pittsburgh children’s television star Mr. Rogers, played by a Tom Hanks on his very best form (not that he isn’t always nowadays), “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” bests expectations that it could prove conventional once again.
Although it is no masterpiece of avant garde filmmaking, “Neighborhood” is also not the pokey marshmallow that Heller could easily have got away with. Led by another outstanding performance from Matthew Rhys as the tired (and occasionally tiresome) Esquire journalist Lloyd Vogel, Neighborhood makes the smart and risky decision to centre itself not on Rogers himself but on one of the people he impacted indelibly. (For a straightforward telling of Rogers’ life, see last year’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbour?”)
Vogel is no obvious student of Rogers’ apparent wisdom, either. The investigative journalist is first appalled when he is sent to write a 400-word “puff piece” on the beloved but unfashionable minister and TV host, but like even the most reluctant member of the audience, he is won over by Rogers’ sincerity and the fact that Rogers is more interesting than his all-smiles persona would initially suggest.
Using a cynic to represent the doubters of society at large is an old trick and perhaps a tired one, but Hanks operates perfectly as the half Santa Claus, half unwanted therapist Rogers proves to be for Vogel. Rogers takes a particular interest in his father Jerry (Chris Cooper) and wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson). In this sense, Neighborhood does for the jaded journalist of today what Mrs. Doubtfire did for the confused children of America’s exploding divorcee population in the early 1990s; it’s not an overtly political film by any means, and likely better for it, but the notion of a disconnected society that could use the earnestness of a Mr Rogers-type figure is surely relevant in the recent uptick in Rogers-themed culture.
Putting Vogel at the very heart of the story, contrary to the journalist-as-listener trope we’ve seen for so long (although otherwise exceptional, Jackie springs to mind), is Heller’s most obvious signal of the interested-but-disillusioned generation of Americans Rogers would have found a particular interest in. That’s a feeling Brits can relate to, although the figures popular on British television at a similar time to Mr Rogers have shrunk in their demise rather than risen. Mr Rogers would probably have had something truthful and reassuring to say about all that, too.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood avoids the predicted fate of death-by-folksiness with the input of real bite from Matthew Rhys, a world-beating performance from Tom Hanks and some directorial mastery from Heller, who takes her seat at the top table of studio system filmmakers, if she wasn’t there already. Just like its subject, her film surprises us with a complexity and intrigue we could not ever have expected. What would we do without it?