The Flaunting Sweetness of ‘It’s a Wonderful Day in the Neighborhood’

In the films she’s directed so far, Marielle Heller has shown a talent for creating characters who wrap you around their fingers—the middle ones, lifted to the world at large. “Defiant,” “needy,” “furious,” and “reckless” might be some of the adjectives you’d apply to Minnie in The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015), with her aching loins and cartoon brain, or to Lee and Jack, who drink, insult, and hoax their way through Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018). Heller’s instinct is to see situations through the eyes of these people but then step a little to the side for a parallax view, in which the damage done momentarily jumps closer to the center of the frame. Without sentimentalizing bad behavior—till now, anyway—she has remained close to her troublesome characters, encouraging your feelings toward them to verge on the warm and fuzzy.

Which is why it’s not entirely strange to find Heller going full-on cardigan zip-up in her third feature, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a fictionalized, PG adventure of Fred Rogers. Written for the screen by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, based loosely on a 1998 Esquire article by Tom Junod, Beautiful Day in effect plunks one of Heller’s difficult people into the middle of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, where the beneficiary (or victim) of this experiment confronts an unrelenting niceness that would have made Lee and Jack puke.

I’m sure the film will be best known and appreciated for Tom Hanks’s impersonation of the story’s unfailingly kind and understanding hero. (Spoiler alert: Hanks is good at this.) But the central character, in whom Heller concentrates her tartness, is Lloyd Vogel, a fictional Esquire reporter unhappily assigned to write a 400-word blurb about Mr. Rogers and flummoxed to find that this subject, alone among television’s products, is precisely as advertised.

Registering incredulity, exasperation, and mounting ire as Lloyd is Matthew Rhys, who is also good at this sort of thing. In his own long-running stint on television, in The Americans, Rhys spent much of the last two or three seasons eating his guts out in remorse and disillusionment. Here he shambles about in much the same spirit: uncombed, unshaven, draped in the sort of long raincoat that can signal trouble outside a schoolyard gate, and with a right eye badly discolored from his most recent bout of hotheadedness. Add to this that Lloyd lives in a downtown Manhattan alley, and you might say Heller makes him the human equivalent of another PBS kid-show figure, Oscar the Grouch. Beautiful Day is the story of how Fred Rogers wrestles for this man’s soul, in the gentlest way possible, and at last teaches him to get happy.

Heller takes Lloyd as her focus, but to a degree that’s uncommon for her she does not make him the governing consciousness of the movie. Keeping faith with the themes of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, she instead watches Lloyd in sympathy and amusement as he loses his struggle against the unbeatable power of corniness. The movie’s best scenes win you over by flaunting their sweetness, as when the passengers in a New York subway car recognize Fred Rogers and spontaneously break into his theme song. The whole democratic polis joins in—middle-school kids, cops, some burly guy in a watch cap, and a delighted Rogers himself—all except Lloyd, of course, whose embarrassment grips him like gastric distress. You feel bad for him; but you also get a touch of the pleasure reserved for the blessed in heaven, as they watch the damned writhe in hell.

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