Neighbourhood Watch

Hard to overstate how terrific CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? is but the same director’s A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD might be even better, even though comparisons are odious (even more odious than other things).

Marielle Heller is a new favourite. And it says something that ABDITN, in which Tom Hanks plays Fred Mister Rogers and Matthew Rhys plays a fictional-but-inspired-by-real-life journalist assigned to interview him, is arguably much more flawed than CYEFM?, but still manages to be even more moving and effective, at least for this audience of two.

We didn’t grow up with Mr. Rogers in the UK, although I’ve seen snippets. This might actually be an advantage, because the question of whether Tom Hanks sufficiently resembles Fred Rogers in look and manner wasn’t really an issue for us. I could see how it might be distracting. And I can see how Hanks’ physiognomy dictates certain effects when he smiles protractedly (he can seem slightly eerie) which distinguish him from his model (a little otherworldly but never spooky). Never mind that.

I think MAYBE the use of models and puppets could be integrated more ambitiously into the full-scale action. It’s always fun and charming, though. Apparently the director and cinematographer had rules about everything, but these are not obvious to the audience, and the editor sort of ignored them. But I did sometimes puzzle over why one exterior longshot was a live action full-sized location, and another was a miniature with obvious toy figures and vehicles. Again, it doesn’t really matter, I just think you could have even more fun with this stuff, delightful as it is.

And there’s one noisy sequence — a Cat Stevens song comes in and I think “Oh good, I like Yusuf Islam” and then a bunch of Mr. Rogers clips crash into it and the lyrics and the dialogue are on top of one another, and while a build-up of Babel could be quite effective, instead it’s just two sets of words all the time, shouting over each other, and this was weirdly unsure-footed in a film that’s otherwise so effective.

Those are the quibbles. I’m not even that bothered about whether Matthew Rhys’ particular family troubles, which Mr. Rogers helps sort out, are compelling or convincing. I can treat them as a placeholder and still find the film enormously satisfying because the scenes between Hanks and Rhys are what it’s all about and they work like gangbusters. Although Lloyd Vogel (Rhys) is supposed to be interviewing Rogers (Hanks), Mr. Rogers insists on reciprocity. He’s like Hannibal Lector in that way. Only in that way — but here the faint suspicion of some interior darkness is not a disadvantage. Although it might be important to keep in mind that this suspicion might be ALL OUR IMAGINING — based on the ways we read faces, and the way faces are sometimes shaped in ways that mislead us. Rhys’ character is, initially, trying to figure out if Fred Rogers is for real. And Hanks doesn’t tip his hand one way or the other.

They put one of the most incredible scenes on YouTube:

In this scene we also get to see the real Mrs. Rogers. But isn’t Rhys excellent? We enjoyed him a lot in the Perry Mason reboot, but here he’s wonderful, really a master of micro-acting.

A scene Heller and DP Jody Lee Lipes talk about in they’re commentary (yes, it’s worth buying the disc, but you could rent the film on YouTube right now if you desire it) is the first in-person meeting, where Vogel/Rhys tells Rogers/Hanks that he’s having trouble knowing if he’s talking to a person or a character. “There’s you, and there’s Mr. Rogers.”

Heller does something magnificent. She crosses the line. The scene has been elegantly filmed from BEHIND the two characters, with over-the-shoulder shots favouring each face, and for Fred’s reaction (or is it Mr. Rogers’?) she jumps to a shot taken from the FRONT.

It’s not confusing at all, since this is a static two-hander at present, and all the shots show at least part of both characters, so we’re perfectly orientated. But the line-cross kind of turns Rogers (whose name, like Hanks’, is appropriately plural) into two people. YOU and MR. ROGERS. Heller says the scene gets a huge laugh from audiences, without them mostly knowing that it’s the line-crossing that makes them respond that way. Which is fascinating. And super-nerdy. It’s going straight into my first-year teaching where I talk about the eyeline.

11 Responses to “Neighbourhood Watch”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Can’t say I agree with you about this one. While it’s certainly well-made the “niceness” of Fred Rodgers ad the “niceness” of Tom Hanks cancel each other out. While the film tries through the Matthew Rhys character to supply some degree of psychological depth it’s nowhere near “Can You Ever Forgive Me.”

    Regarding “Children’s Programming” my God is Burr Tillstrom. My long-boring memoir “Raised By Hand Puppets” is dedicated to his memory

  2. I definitely think both films provide ample evidence of Heller being a major upcoming talent. Curious now to see her first, Diary of a Teenage Girl, and her recent filmed stage show, What the Constitution Means to Me, which is on Prime.

  3. I’m sure Hanks is a nice guy in real life, but when he plays one on screen I am always conscious of his Betcha-Can’t-Guess-How-Many-Dead-Hookers-I-Have-In-My-Basement Resting Face. I know it’s just some fluke of physiogamy– a sinister crinkle of the eye here, a bit of inexplicable jowl there– but once you notice it, it’s never not there. On the plus side, it makes some otherwise intolerable rom-coms tolerable. On the minus side… well, maybe there IS no minus side.

  4. There are things Hanks can do that banish any creepiness for me. When he’s surrounded by more erratic types, like in The Burbs, his built-in semi-sneer functions as a sympathetic trait uniting him with the audience.

    I always think of a bit in Julie Salomon’s The Devil’s Candy where he’s on the set of Bonfire of the Vanities looking at Bruce Willis and quietly trash-talking the guy to his interviewer… “There’s that shit-eating grin again…”

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “The Devil’s Candy” podcast on TCM is the biggest deal anyone has ever made about a flop that deserves to be forgotten (as opposed to “Heaven’s Gate” a flop that deserves to be remembered) The bottom line is there was no way to make Tom Wolfe’s book into a hit movie because the book is blatantly — flagrantly –racist and the casting of Hanks and Morgan Freeman only served to underscore its racism, rather than soft-pedal it.

    Tom Wolfe was a Truly Evil POS for reasons I outline HERE

  6. bensondonald Says:

    In a couple of places I’ve read that Rogers appeared to find everybody interesting — an interviewer, a kid explaining a toy, anybody he happened to encounter. He’d pay attention, notice things, ask questions. Listening is preached in every How to Be Popular book, but with Rogers it was evidently genuine as opposed to calculated or creepy.

  7. (Link doesn’t work.)

    There might conceivably be a way to make a non-racist film of that book, but it would require understanding where the book and its entire mission is racist and deeply conservative (and then taking an axe to it), and I don’t think anybody involved got that. Shaving ten years off the protag and making him Tom Hanks forces Kim Cattrall to play his wife as a cartoon monster, since the anti-hero’s cheating on his wife was motivated by his mid-life crisis, and so now the movie’s misogynist too. Well done, guys.

    Rogers’ listening MAY have been a willed act, and the movie suggests that his goodness was an act of discipline and will too, but he certainly seems to have committed to it.

  8. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Forget Melanie Griffith and Kim Cattrall. The book’s message is simple: “Take the wrong exit off the freeway and THEY will get you!”

    (This link should work )

  9. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “In a couple of places I’ve read that Rogers appeared to find everybody interesting ” Very “Elwood P. Dowd” — in which case he should have been played by Jim Parsons

  10. roberthorton Says:

    I can’t think of a recent film that features a conceit so tiresome (disenchanted journo must fix self, looks to Mr. Rogers for help) yet manages to corral so many moments of beauty and invention. I agree, Heller is very good. DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL is unflinching, made by someone who doesn’t have amnesia about what being young is like.

  11. Excellent — I’ll watch it!

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