Tuesday March 03, 2020
Movie Review: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)
You want to like a movie about someone so likeable. You want to like a movie that’s so well-liked: 95% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes; 92% audience score. That’s almost everyone.
The filmmakers even framed the story right. Writers Michah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster (“Transparent”), and director Marielle Heller (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”), don’t make the movie about Mr. Rogers; they make it about someone interacting with Mr. Rogers. It’s about someone cynical and lost; someone who needs help.
They did all that right. But they blew it in the execution. Man, did they blow it.
Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is a cynical magazine writer who has a reputation for taking cheap shots, and who, in 1998, is assigned to write 400 words on Fred Rogers for an Esquire theme issue on heroes. They fly him to Pittsburgh to do the interview.
Me: Wait. They fly him to Pittsburgh? For 400 words? How much money did Esquire have to toss around back then? But sure, whatever. I’ll give this a pass since it’s my profession and Hollywood always screws up your profession. Lawyer, doctor, cop: They never get it right. But I doubt it was ever 400 words. Watching, I assumed it would be the cover story. Which, yes.
Besides being a cynical journalist, Lloyd is a shitty husband and father. He’s married to the beautiful Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson, way above his pay grade), and they have a baby, but Lloyd seems disconnected from both. He doesn’t know how many diapers they use; he doesn’t know how to put a baby seat in a cab. She does it all. Because even though she’s an attorney and he’s a freelance writer—which is like the perfect job for a stay-at-home parent—she’s the one who looks after the baby. He’s too distant. He’s closed off emotionally. He’s still full of anger.
And why is he distant, closed off, full of anger? Because when he was young, his father, Jerry (Chris Cooper), left his mother as she lay dying. He left them all. He abandoned them in their time of need.
Actually, that’s pretty shitty. That would be tough to forgive.
And that’s where the movie finds fault in him: In his inability to forgive his father.
You see, the man who abandoned them in their time of need, is now, in his time of need, looking to reconnect. He shows up at Lloyd’s sister’s wedding, and not exactly hat-in-hand. He’s got a big personality, and makes a drunken speech, and calls Andrea “doll,” and he and Lloyd into a fight, a real fist fight, and it becomes a Jersey shore free-for-all kind of thing—the groom gets involved, too—and it’s under these circumstances, with a cut above his nose, and a black eye, that Lloyd flies to Pittsburgh to interview the wonderfully gentle minister and children’s TV host Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) for a 400-word blurb in Esquire magazine.
Turns out Lloyd is not just a cynical journalist but a bad one. At one point he asks Mr. Rogers if being Mr. Rogers is a burden, and there’s a pause, and rather than let his subject fill the pause—and kids, this is Journalism 101—he does it himself. And in the worst way. He says to Mr. Rogers, “OK, let’s assume it’s a burden.” Wow. I can’t even. Apparently Mr. Rogers was a tough interview because he was curious and empathetic and asked a lot of questions, and here Mr. Rogers keeps asking Lloyd about his father until Lloyd can’t take it anymore and stands up and leaves. He walks out of the interview he’s conducting. Now I know I talked about ignoring the ways Hollywood screws up your profession, but that’s about the dumbest thing I’ve seen even a movie journalist do. You leave your own interview? That’s not how it works.
Fleeing this conversation about his father, he returns home to find his wife sitting at the kitchen table talking and laughing with ... his father, of course. And his father’s new wife. And his father’s new wife is holding the baby. And when he asks them to leave, quietly seething, everyone tries to calm him down; then his dad berates him; then his day says, “My jaw,” and collapses and has to go to the hospital.
Look, sure, Lloyd is a distant father, an uncommunicative husband and a shitty journalist. He needs to fix all these things. The one thing he doesn’t need to fix? His reaction to seeing the father—who abandoned him and his sister and his mother—talking and laughing with his wife at the kitchen table. But the movie sides with the wife.
By this point I think I was angrier than Lloyd was. I thought: If my wife’s mother abandoned her as a child and then tried to reconnect late in life, which my wife didn’t want, vehemently so, even getting into a fight with her at a big shindig; and then the mother and her new husband showed up at our door when my wife is away .... do I invite them in? And if my wife returns and simmers at seeing us all laughing in the kitchen, am I disappointed in her behavior? How about this: If the mother then collapses, saying “My jaw,” and we all have to go to the hospital, but then my wife insists on not staying with her mother—whom she hates—but trying to do something productive, like work, do I say, with stern disappointment, “Everyone who’s important is in this hospital right now.” Because that’s what the movie does with Lloyd.
At this point, with nowhere to go, he has a Daliesque nervous breakdown. Everything gets swirly and he imagines a tiny version of himself on the set of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” with his wife as Lady Aberlin and his dad as the “speedy delivery” guy, and a giant Mr. Rogers there holding his tiger puppet: mew mew mew. It’s bizarre and creepy. Then he dreams of his mom on her deathbed. She’s not in pain; she’s serene. And she says this:
Mom: I know you think you’re doing this for me. Holding onto this anger. [Pause, smiling, triumphant] I don’t need it.
He: [Nods, kisses her hand, understands; finally understands]
By this point I could’ve punched a hole in the wall.
But of course now Lloyd can forgive his dad. And because he forgives his dad, he becomes a better husband and father. Then he becomes a better writer—writing a 10,000 word piece that’s partly about him, and mostly about Mr. Rogers, and his editor is like, “Yep, we’re putting that on the cover.” His dad dies, sure, but the family is whole again, and everything is grand in the Land of Make-Believe.
Can you ever forgive me?
The sad thing is how good this movie could’ve been. Read the 1998 feature it was based on, “Can You Say ... Hero?,” then read the 2019 follow-up piece, “My Friend Mister Rogers,” which is also by Tom Junod, which is the real name of Lloyd Vogel. This is how it begins:
A long time ago, a man of resourceful and relentless kindness saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. He trusted me when I thought I was untrustworthy, and took an interest in me that went beyond my initial interest in him. He was the first person I ever wrote about who became my friend, and our friendship endured until he died. Now a movie has been made from the story I wrote about him, which is to say “inspired by” the story I wrote about him, which is to say that in the movie my name is Lloyd Vogel and I get into a fistfight with my father at my sister’s wedding. I did not get into a fistfight with my father at my sister’s wedding. My sister didn’t have a wedding.
God, that’s good. That lede is Joseph Mitchell-good: “resourceful and relentless kindness.”
There’s a profundity to Fred Rogers that the movie doesn’t begin to approach. Why did he become a TV host? Because he was appalled by 1950s television. “He considered the space between the television set and the eyes of his audience sacred,” Junod writes, “and from 1966 to 2000 he taped nearly 1,000 episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, trying to make that space less profane.” The movie gives us the “You were once a child, too” story, but it doesn’t nail it the way Junod does. Rogers asked an in-house writer to put together a manual to help doctors talk to children. “She worked hard on it,” Junod writes, “using all her education and experience in the field of child development, but when she handed him her opening, he crossed out what she’d written and replaced it with six words: ‘You were a child once too.’”
This is how much Junod conveys Fred Rogers’ graciousness: I felt bad for hating the movie. I should’ve been a better person about it. I should’ve forgiven its lies. I should’ve said the writers and producers and director were children once, too.
Interesting that many of the movies released in the fall of 2019 touch on the theme of forgiveness. It’s Daniel’s sermon in “Corpus Christi”: “To forgive doesn’t mean to forget. Forgive means love. To love someone despite their guilt. No matter what the guilt is.” It’s a theme in Pedro Almodovar’s “Dolor y Gloria.” Salvador has to forgive Alberto, and Federico, and himself. I wrote that Almodovar's movie forgives everything but bad art, and I guess that’s me, too, and thus this review. I’d like to forgive “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” But I can’t.
Now get the hell out of my kitchen.