★★★★ - STUFF
- Some interviews leave a lasting impression.
I still distinctly remember talking Thanksgiving with Martin Sheen as he prepared to host the family, chatting about teenage crushes with Winona Ryder and getting parenting advice from a sweary Kate Winslet.
But, I have to admit, I've never had a celebrity discussion as life-changing as Lloyd Vogel's (Matthew Rhys) in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. A winner at the 1997 National Magazine Awards, Vogel firmly believes in using his "front row seat to history" to "expose truths" and "changing a broken world with our worlds". So the investigative journalist is less than impressed when, for his latest Esquire assignment, he's asked to fly to Pittsburgh for a 400 word "puff piece" on "hokey kids show guy" Fred Rogers.
It's for an upcoming issue on American heroes and, before Vogel can protest, his editor confirms that Rogers' was the only one on their wishlist willing to talk to him.
"People love talking to me," Vogel whine. "That's until they read what you wrote," comes the pithy reply. Not improving his mood is the news that his estranged father (Chris Cooper) is attending his sister's third wedding. And, although he tries his best not to get riled, things end in a contretemps, a bloodied nose and a black eye.
So it's a somewhat distracted Lloyd Vogel who steps onto the WQED set of Misters Rogers' Neighborhood, hoping that he might just be able to find a chink in the armour of its effusive host Fred McFeely Rogers. But despite warning's from his wife (This is Us' Susan Kelechi Watson) not to ruin her childhood, even Vogel isn't prepared for what he is about to encounter.
Let's get one thing out of the way first, Neighborhood is not a biopic of the much-loved, Ned Flanders-esque Rogers. If you want that story, try Morgan Neville's excellent 2018 documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?
Instead, director Marielle Heller's (The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Can You Ever Forgive Me?) dramedy is more about the impact Rogers had on one man. Inspired by Esquire journalist's Tom Junod's encounters with him for his Can You Say...Hero? article, Heller and screenwriting duo Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Transparent) weave a darkly comic, occasionally surreal and surprisingly emotional tale.
With the whole movie presented like an episode of Neighborhood, animated segues and Forrest Gump-esque insertions into historical footage, it feels like a cross between a Cameron Crowe-paean to magazine journalism and a Spike Jonze mindbender.
That said, Heller deserves plenty of kudos. This could have been cloyingly twee and sappily sentimental, instead it is heartwarming and endearing.
That's also down to the combination of two terrific performances. Rhys (The Americans) delivers precisely the right dose of world-weary cynicism, while Hanks perfectly captures the quiet intensity and cadence of the seemingly unflappable Rogers. It's hard not to be drawn in by his words and into his world of positivity and "neighbourhood of make believe".
- James Croot, STUFF
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is now playing at Light House Cinema!