A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood

                Yes, the documentary (ďWonít You Be My Neighbor?Ē) was just released earlier this year, but that one was more about who Fred Rogers was.  This one is more about what Fred Rogers did.

                Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is a feature writer for ďEsquireĒ magazine, where heís known for being a hard-edged, hard-hitting journalist who pulls no punches.  That reputation suits him just fine, but his editor is beginning to have difficulty lining him up with any more celebrities.  So instead she assigns him to do a brief little piece about Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.  Yes, the childrenís television show.  Lloyd complains that that isnít what he does, and his editor replies that he will do what she tells him to do.  So he reluctantly makes the contact, and is flabbergasted to receive a call back from Fred Rogers himself.

                When Lloyd goes to keep the appointment, it so happened his sister was getting married, again, the weekend before.  Lloyd didnít even want to go to the wedding because he heard his father, Jerry (Chris Cooper) was going to be there.  Lloyd hasnít had anything nice to say to, or about, his father, since he abandoned the family when his wife (Lloydís Mom) got sick.  Lloydís wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) tries to encourage her husband to play nice at the wedding, but the anger quickly resurfaces, and Lloyd winds up in fisticuffs.  With a black eye and a cut nose to show for it.  And thatís how he meets Fred Rogers.  Lloyd tries to pass it off as a softball injury.  But Fred gently pushes Lloyd, sensing that something needs talking about.  At first, Lloyd resists.  But Fred Rogers quietly pursues the relationship, inviting Lloyd back on the set.  Trying to do the interview, Lloyd insists on asking questions about Fred Rogersí life, like ďIsnít it a burden to have to carry around this nice guy persona all the time?Ē Lloyd doesnít yet realize that Mr. Rogers isnít an act, like Pee Wee Herman.  Fred Rogers is the same person outside the studio.  Lloyd doesnít want to discuss his feelings about his Dad.  But the perceptive Mr. Rogers realizes that the one thing Lloyd doesnít want to talk about is the one thing he needs to talk about.

                This is an interesting way to approach telling the story of the strong cultural impact of this  unique television show ďMr. Rogersí Neighborhood.Ē  Yes, Tom Hanks bears an uncanny resemblance, and heís such a good actor that heís got the mannerisms down.  But this isnít just about imitating or mimicking.  Itís providing us with a concrete example (based on the real-life friendship with journalist Tom Junod) of the impactful way that Fred Rogers affected people.  Not just kids, but adults, as well.

                Thereís a great scene on a subway, where Fred and Lloyd are riding together to Fredís apartment in New York City, and some people in the subway car, noticing who was with them, just spontaneously start singing ďItís a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,Ē the opening theme song on the show, and soon everybody in the car is joining in, including Fred.  Whether or not that actually happened, itís a fitting tribute to a man who touched the lives of many with his kindness and gentleness.

                Another significant moment in the film is when Fred and Lloyd are at lunch, and Fred asks Lloyd to take one minute of silence with him, to think about all the people who have loved him.  Soon the whole restaurant gets quiet.  And youíll probably not experience a longer silence in the middle of a movie, either.  But it might turn out to be a positive emotional moment for you.  And thatís the kind of impact Fred Rogers had on people.

                Sure, the movie is calm, deliberate, quiet, and soft-spoken, just like the person itís about.  Some will even say itís silly and childish.  But they would be missing the point.  Itís about bringing out the child still residing in us all.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association