PG, but...I rarely write "PG, but." Unless the problem was that the movie showed a butt. But that joke doesn't even work written out. Yes, the movie deserves to be PG. I fight for actual PG films because everything live-action tends to get relegated to the mature content zone. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is PG, but it does have some heavy content. To contrast the wholesome nature of Fred Rogers, the movie has the protagonist of the film deal with some pretty dark content, mostly involving the hatred of his father. He violently punches his father and he also receives some pretty intense trauma to the face, which the movie shows in a picture throughout the film. The movie also deals with issues like death in a pretty blunt way for some children. Regardless, PG.
DIRECTOR: Marielle Heller
Since the documentary, Won't You Be My Neighbor? came out, I've been writing about the joy of Fred Rogers a lot. I wrote an article for Catholic News Agency. I did a podcast on the movie. I wrote one of these analyses for it. The ensuing thing happened: I got almost annoyed when people would talk about Fred Rogers afterwards. I did that thing when it was mine and it became my thing. I hated when other people liked it. The people that I wanted to see the movie didn't watch it, but everyone else did. My little own brand of snobbery took over and I distanced myself from my love for Mister Rogers. But then, this movie came out and I thought that I wasn't going to watch it. But I did...
Mister Rogers is a transcendent soul. I will always recommend that people watch the documentary, especially before seeing A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. But the biopic is so smart and savvy that it helped me remember what it was about Mr. Rogers that tugged on my heartstrings in the documentary. Casting Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers seems so on brand that it almost made me angry when it was announced. Tom Hanks, while not exactly Mr. Rogers, is kind of like America's dad. I keep seeing click bait that shows "Here are the 8 people who don't like Tom Hanks. Number 3 will surprise you!" That's almost a testimonial for how well regarded this man is.
Hanks's performance is what really sells the concept of Mr. Rogers as something special in this film. It must be phenomenally hard to try to bottle that magic for a third time. Fred Rogers, the real Fred Rogers, brought something special into the world with his creation of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Won't You Be My Neighbor?, a documentary about both the show and the man, recaptured a lot of that specialness. I didn't think a biopic would be able to add anything to the pile of content that was already overfilled. But casting Hanks as Mr. Rogers does a lot of the work. When I saw Saving Mr. Banks, I kept seeing Tom Hanks playing Walt Disney. I don't know what it is about it. I don't think it was a bad performance, by any stretch of the imagination. But he didn't become Walt Disney. There's something happening on screen with Beautiful Day because there are times that I can't even see Tom Hanks. While physical qualities probably play a part in that transformation from America's Dad to Mister Rogers, much of it comes down to mannerisms and a deep understanding of what made Fred Rogers tick.
Like with Won't You Be My Neighbor?, the movie evokes a sense of warmth at the idea that Fred Rogers walked this earth and was a genuinely good dude. The documentary made me feel bad that I didn't watch more Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, mainly because I thought it was boring. The movie does the same thing. I apologize for getting repetitive because of all of the content I'm producing on Fred Rogers, but he really was a special guy. The magic of him comes from the fact that Fred Rogers isn't a character. This isn't to downplay the fact that the man probably had some very real demons. The doc examines and explores many of those demons outright. But Fred Rogers was a good man that cared for everyone he met. There are times that I want to just tear what little hair I have left out with the people I love. Mr. Rogers didn't get mad at the people he loved (with rare exception). Instead, he got mad at injustice. How did he take it out? By playing the lower notes on the piano aggressively. That's amazing. The biopic captures this goodness and innocence well.
But it does so in a really smart way. The documentary, as phenomenal as it is, doesn't really present its content and subject matter with a gimmick. As beautiful as it is, most of the story is chronological. Interviews and archival footage tell the larger tale of Fred Rogers though anecdotes. Especially with the pop culture documentary, this is the way to go. It's effective and smart. But the biopic knows that it has to be something different. I'm ashamed to be comparing A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood to It, but the movie understands that it actually stands in the shadow, albeit small shadow, of the documentary. To distance itself from a very similar content area, the movie shies away from making Fred Rogers the protagonist.
Biopics actually tend to get pretty boring because they are so formulaic. While Fred Rogers probably had a lot on his plate, the big takeaway from the people who knew him is that he handled his demons responsibly. That doesn't really gel with a traditional biopic. The story of great people also contain heartache and torture. Fred Rogers really didn't have that, so why bother tell the tale of someone who doesn't really change in the face of adversity. The story still needs to be told. Instead, the movie uses Lloyd Vogel as a protagonist.
Lloyd Vogel isn't technically real. He's a placeholder for Esquire writer Tom Junod, who ended up writing the Esquire article entitled "Can You Say...Hero?" I don't know if Junod had the same particular darkness that Lloyd Vogel did. There's an article, appropriately, on Esquire.com about the real story with a link to the article that Junod wrote. But Lloyd Vogel represents the real world. Well, he represents the world that we all think is the the real world. Adults tend to view the real world as a dark and overwhelming place. While I am mostly happy, I probably find my world view to be closer to that of Vogel than of Rogers. It is a world that we muddle through and try to do our best, despite challenges constantly popping up. But Lloyd Vogel isn't repeating a story that already happened.
Through Lloyd Vogel's pessimistic attitude towards humanity, we instead get everything we need to know about Fred Rogers. The film is very self-aware of itself. By using establishing shots of models, similar to the opening crawl of Mister Rogers Neighborhood, Rogers acts as a bit of a narrator and commentator about Vogel's life. I'm blanking right now. It might be Kubrick, but one famous director said that the act of storytelling is a bit of a reflection on the storyteller. I have to admit, I'm adding a lot of commentary to that statement. With the metatextual framework of Rogers doing an episode about Lloyd Vogel, we see Rogers' philosophy as if we are children. That juxtaposition between the two characters, too, reminds us of how close we as audience members connect to polar opposites.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is an absolutely gorgeous movie. I kept telling my family, including my wife, to watch the documentary. It was a hard sell. But my wife watching Beautiful Day? She got knocked in all of the nostalgia feels. It might be easy to see Beautiful Day as a cash-grab. It immediately follows possibly one of the best documentaries in the past ten years, despite its Oscar snub. People love nostalgia. But Beautiful Day never feels like it is exploiting the life of Fred Rogers. Rather, like Rogers and his attitude for empathy, the film acts as a love letter to both the man and a world that needs this man. Seeing the joy that he brought people reminds us that the world is a dark place and it is not often our fault for viewing it as such. But it also reminds us that it only takes one person to bring love and happiness into the world. The biggest thing that matters is that it isn't allowed to be an act.
Fred Rogers was Mister Rogers. If the movie and the documentary has taught me anything, Fred Rogers never became a character when the cameras were on. He lived his life like he preached. He openly prayed for people by name. Now, there is a big-budget movie that every demographic seems to be getting behind that talks about the value of prayer. Rogers never looks silly or misguided because he prayed or loved people. He comes across, without exception, as looking like a hero. Even when Vogel is skeptical about this man, the joke lies on the fact that Vogel doesn't really get it. It's a gorgeous movie.
I didn't cry, but I got close.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.