Updated: Nov 30, 2019
Marielle Heller’s directorial achievement in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood might just be the closest thing cinema has to comfort food; Heller’s film invokes such heart-warming emotions that even the most cynical of audiences will crack a smile or two throughout the decisive 108-minute run-time. Chronicling the real-life events of investigative journalist Tom Junod (Matthew Rhys) and his extraordinary friendship with American television icon Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks), the film captures the poignant nostalgia so many were hoping for, but there is another layer of the piece aching to be pulled back. From Heller’s genius direction to Tom Hanks’ delightful portrayal as Mr. Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is every bit as familiar as it is fresh, as tangible as it is fantastical.
Yes, screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue (Transparent) and Noah Harpster (Maleficient: Mistress of Evil) have sprinkled deserved moments of sheer fantasy that couldn't exist otherwise. These moments add a unique levity, immediately juxtaposed by the gravitas of the all too real world A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is grounded in. It’s a dynamic coupling, one that actually works remarkably well, especially for a seemingly pristine archetype like Mr. Rogers. Tom Hanks may be what eventually earns the film its awards consideration, but Heller makes very clear from the get-go that it is Matthew Rhys’ Tom Junod who is the true star here. Rhys handles such a position capably, delicately balancing the pessimism of the character’s investigative journalist persona with the human spirit of a man who aches for the past. Both Rhys and Hanks and a well-rounded supporting cast lend for touching moments that will surely appeal to every audience, especially given its PG rating. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood shines thanks to Heller’s ability to weave such a profound tale of a man who only wished there was a little more kindness in the world. Coated in feverish nostalgia and infectious optimism, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is exactly what its name suggests, a wonderful time in the cinema, a location many of us consider to be their heart’s true neighborhood.
At the media screening I was courteously invited to, studio and distributor Tristar arranged for a choir from a local high school to perform in the packed theater of journalists like myself, fans, and general audiences excited to get be one of the first to get a glimpse at the film. First performing “I’ll Be There” by Michael Jackson, their session was capped by a reincarnation of Rogers’ timeless “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” The reason I mention such a seemingly irrelevant facet of the experience is the fact that the performed song “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” serves as a continuous motif throughout the entire film with Hanks heartily performing the light musical number at the opening and finale. Indeed, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is bolstered into grand fashion by the number, framed as another one of Mr. Rogers’ beloved episodes. Sequences like this mark the breadth of the genius of Heller’s direction. In addition to their tender charm, they are all critical for underscoring the unique direction the writers for Hanks’ Rogers.
Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers proves every bit as enchanting as one could have hoped, recapturing the magic of the personality that has reached all over the world. However, the writers also make the distinguishing that Mr. Rogers isn’t perfect or a “saint” as Maryann Plunkett’s portrayal of Mr. Rogers’ spouse notes. In a middling conversation with Matthew Rhys’ Tom Junod, Fred Rogers even classifies his personality as “human,” stating that his experiences with his two sons have built something of a temper within him. Even though audiences do not see his “temper” come into play until the closing scenes, the very fact that Mr. Rogers is not portrayed as an invincible force for good makes for a perspective that’s all the more realistic. It would have been easy, even tempting for the film’s screenwriters Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster to portray the character that way, but to do so would have compromised the overarching thematic material at play, a consequence that would have most certainly crippled the film’s decimating emotional impacts. Tom Hanks relishes such a role, turning in one of his best performances in recent memory. Even though he never takes the shining light away from Matthew Rhys’ character, he has an overarching presence throughout the entire film that isn't ham-fisted. Even when judged conservatively, it’s still most certainly an award-worthy supporting role, one that TriStar will surely push for during this year’s awards season in the guilds and critics groups.
Even when excluding its clever direction and performances, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood still finds additional, “beautiful” ways to surprise and delight. For one, cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes’ work is impeccable, possessing subtlety and complexity in almost every shot. By no means is the film shot flashily with meticulous camera work. Instead, Lipes mercifully allows the audience just enough breathing room to settle in for the ride, offering frames that do not cram and overload the senses, but rather acclimate them to A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’s playful yet realistic world. Shrewd use is also made out of the various aspect ratios editor Anne McCabe plays with. The editing toys with the idea of aspect ratios as a driving vehicle for storytelling but evens the space with the sentimental and wistful flavors audiences want. In fact, the frequent balancing act McCabe pulls off could be applied to almost every element in the concoction that is A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
However, like everything else human as Mr. Rogers would say, the film has its faults, many sourced from the screenplay. Generally, Fitzerman-Blue’s and Harpster’s script works like a charm, acting as the perfect supplement to Heller’s unique vision, but there are small imperfections here and there, a majority appearing in the final scenes. Indeed, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood runs into similar roadblocks like the multi-faceted endings of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King where the actual conclusion is delayed by sequences that should have been the perfect place to roll the credits. While the film never reaches the excessive six endings of the aforementioned The Return of the King, its last few moments are still blunted, their resonant emotions becoming just a little duller. Respectively, however, short blemishes like this may be ignored by audiences, and rightfully so as they never compromise the experience. It's a leading testament to how expertly A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is crafted so that it soars sky-high despite several bumps along the way.
Ultimately, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood has undoubtedly topped the charts as my favorite feature film I have had the pleasure of experiencing in 2019. There is a timeless quality in this magnificent bundle of a film, a quality that will surely age like the finest of wines. Realized by the likes of acclaimed performers Matthew Rhys and Tom Hankss, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood had all the ingredients to make a suitably enjoyable ride at the bare minimum. However, the flick exceeds expectations magnificently because of the combined efforts of director Marielle Heller and screenwriters. Indeed, Heller will surely be one of the major victors coming out of Tristar’s nostalgia-centric production, producing yet another feather to place in her nearly overflowing cap. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a gorgeous and profoundly charming experience that places a firm trust in the candid good of both society and the individual. The cast and filmmakers have repeatedly stated in junket interviews that this film is one that we truly need in our divided, conflicted times, and in retrospect, it most certainly is. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not just a film to see in 2019; it is the film to see in 2019.
Tom Hanks portrays Mister Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a timely story of kindness triumphing over cynicism, based on the true story of a real-life friendship between Fred Rogers and journalist Tom Junod. After a jaded magazine writer (Emmy winner Matthew Rhys) is assigned a profile of Fred Rogers, he overcomes his skepticism, learning about kindness, love and forgiveness from America’s most beloved neighbor.
A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD Hits Theaters on November 22nd.
About the Writer:
Charlie Jin is an avid writer, journalist, author, and cinephile, praising the very best that a year has to offer in film, literature, and gaming. He is the editor-in-chief and founder of HBB Reviews and is a proud member of the Southeast Film Critics Association, Georgia Film Critics Association, and the Atlanta Film Critics Circle. He serves as a staff writer on Second Union and The Young Folks. He has also written the critically acclaimed short story collection Project Vita.