Bock’s Office: No imagining the positivity of ‘Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’
If you’re looking for a holiday film that takes you back to the days of being seated in the childhood rumpus room watching a friendly face, search no further than “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”
Esquire Magazine writer Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) has raked in major awards for his hard-hitting investigative journalism, and with a determination to expose the truth amid corruption he’s not afraid to ask the difficult questions even if it means making a few enemies.
However, he’s at a loss for words when his editor (Christina Lahti) hands him a puff piece assignment on a subject he never would have expected: children’s show host Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks).
The initial interviews with the longtime staple of television catch Lloyd off-guard, unsure what to make of the soft-spoken, cardigan-clad man who plays with puppets that he assumed would be completely uninteresting.
The more time he spends with Mister Rogers, the more Lloyd begins to examine the elements of his life that have weighed heavily on him, such as his strained marriage, his uncertainty about raising a child and the prickly relationship with the estranged father (Chris Cooper) who recently came back into his life.
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It’s tough to imagine a role that would be a better fit for Hollywood’s ultimate nice guy, and Hanks is pitch-perfect as the namesake of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” as he takes a break from heavier fare like “Bridge of Spies,” “Sully” and “The Post,” slipping easily into the beloved TV host’s sweater and sneakers.
Hanks hits all the right notes of Rogers’ personality; a man who’s joyful without being gregarious, morally upright yet not sanctimonious, and above all, a paragon of kindness to preschoolers and adults alike.
On the flip side, Rhys succeeds as a fictionalized version of Tom Junod, overcoming a thinly written depiction of the typical jaded journalist, one who wears his cynicism like a suit of armor but cracks quickly when the people he interviews start flipping questions back at him.
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars
Running time: 108 minutes
Starring: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson and Chris Cooper
Now playing at Steamboat Springs’ Wildhorse Stadium Cinemas.
To be fair, you probably wouldn’t know how to respond either if someone hit you with personal queries under the guise of Daniel Striped Tiger.
But, it’s not too hard to see where Lloyd’s stress is coming from, with Susan Kelechi Watson fine as the wife frustrated with the level of demand his job involves, while Cooper breezes through one of his many stints as a difficult dad, in this instance seeking to make up for lost time with the son he walked out on years before.
And he wonders why the guy has so much anger…
You don’t need to have been a faithful viewer of the original show or have screened last year’s tearjerker documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” to appreciate this look at the 1998 encounter that led to Junod’s lengthy article that gave new complexity to the star of a kiddie show.
Still, 18 years after the series went off the air, there’s been a renewed interest in the man who made quiet introspection an art form for developing minds, all the while maintaining his genuine love for mankind, a knack for making personal connections, and discomfort with being placed on a pedestal.
But, that doesn’t mean he can’t appreciate a subway car of people of all ages singing his theme song.
There’s a level of imbalance to be expected between Hanks and Rhys to be sure, since the former is playing a cultural icon, but direction by Marielle Heller gets us to care just as much about Lloyd’s half of the story through immersive interstitials animated to resemble the Neighborhood of Make-Believe in letterbox format. A hallucinatory segment where the overwrought writer is transported to King Friday XIII’s castle may divide those in the audience, but what better way to confront your feelings than on that level?
The beauty of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is that, like its main character, it doesn’t try to be bigger than it needs to be, drawing out the wonder of everyday learning and the emotional breakthroughs that can come out when we drop the artifice.
Junod’s original article heralded Rogers as an American hero, and while some may consider that a stretch, the amount of kids across the decades whose lives were impacted by his message — one which is needed all the more these days — is far from imaginary.
Can you say, “innovator?” I knew you could.
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