The best biopics – or at least the most memorable ones – are those that brush aside any notion of objectivity in favor of something much more personal, embracing the spirit of the subject itself. Sometimes this means eschewing the standard, cradle-to-grave depiction, instead focusing on a pivotal moment in the subject’s life and really exploring it. In the other – slightly more risky – cases, the filmmakers choose to actively incorporate the work and sensibility of the subject, often leaning toward a more surreal tone. This is what Spike Jonze did with Adaptation, a film that started out with a single subject, then quickly became about all subjects. We also see this in films like Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, which, through both its cinematography and story structure, put us in Wood’s head, inviting us to see the world through his eyes.
This is what Marielle Heller chooses to do with A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a Mr. Rogers biopic that, by absorbing Rogers’ characteristic fascination with everybody else, pushes him into a supporting role. It’s a dangerous move, but one that feels much truer to the spirit of Rogers than the more straightforward biopic structure.
The real brilliance of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood lies in its ability to engage the viewer in a much more conventional redemption story, about a cynical journalist (Matthew Rhys) and his toxic relationship with his father (Chris Cooper), all while the character of Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) waits patiently in the wings. In a situation like this, it would have been easy to relegate Rogers to the role of wise old sage, capitalizing on his cultural status in lieu of actually exploring him as a character. But as our journalist, Lloyd, attempts to interview Rogers, the subject turns things around and begins to ask questions right back. At first, it is endearing, as the inherent decency of Fred Rogers is on full display. But we soon realize that, while Rogers undoubtedly does care about other people’s stories, his curiosity can also serve as an effective smokescreen, allowing him to avoid answering the tough questions about his own life.
I went into the film wanting Heller to really try to get into the nitty gritty of who Fred Rogers was, preparing to be disappointed when she opted instead to print the legend. But by sidestepping the obvious scenes of inner struggle and torment so common to biopics and instead taking on Rogers’ elusive-but-generous qualities, the film invites us into his outlook, ultimately allowing us to know Rogers in a way that no by-the-numbers biopic ever could. This includes a framing device informed by Rogers’ PBS kids program, and maybe the most effective fourth-wall break I’ve seen since JFK.
As Fred Rogers, Tom Hanks chooses to evoke rather than impersonate. Like Anthony Hopkins in Nixon or Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line, Hanks has clearly studied Rogers’ cadence and demeanor, but tries to create the character from the inside out. What Hanks lacks in Rogers’ lanky frame or higher voice, he more than makes up for in aura. The unassuming way in which Rogers enters a room or patiently listens to others is on full display in Hanks’ performance. It’s a pleasure to behold.
With Hanks the primary draw, the rest of the cast has their work cut out for them, but they all turn in solid, lived-in performances. As the wounded Lloyd, Matthew Rhys essentially acts as the audience stand-in. This is a bit of a tightrope, but, thankfully, Rhys chooses to commit to the character himself, rather than what he may represent. Chris Cooper plays Lloyd’s father as a man of very little substance clearly trying to better himself, without really knowing how. His rash demeanor and just-under-the-surface temper speak volumes about Lloyd’s past, even before things are explained in more detail. And special mention should be made of Maryann Plunkett as Joanne Rogers, Fred’s wife, who can’t exactly be described as “put-upon”, but definitely sees aspects of her husband that the rest of the world doesn’t and has met them with a mix of patient acceptance and loving admiration.
In the end, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood succeeds precisely by acknowledging what the audience wants – both from Rogers and from Lloyd – and then giving it what is possible. The inevitable reconciliation between Lloyd and his father is not the tearful, heartfelt affair we’ve come to expect; the wounds are too deep for something like that. Instead, the tears are shared between Lloyd and his wife, as his own fears about repeating his father’s mistakes come to the surface. And Rogers remains the quiet, kindly, unknowable figure that he always has been. Just as Marielle Heller took a tale of quirky, immoral forgery in Can You Ever Forgive Me? and found a deep well of loneliness underneath, so here she acknowledges the appeal of Fred Rogers’ message while also displaying the tremendous difficulty with which it is implemented. And, in doing so, she does justice to that message, as Rogers was always attempting to demystify adulthood, showing that it is no easier being a grown-up than it is being a kid. And in that space of shared vulnerability and weakness, we can find patience, grace, and kindness, not just for others, but for ourselves.