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Mr. Rogers: A voice of sanity in an alien world

The poster for "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood." - Courtesy of Tri-Star Pictures

‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’ beats to the drum of inner beauty

By Jim Bloch

Spoiler Alert: The following article contains mild spoilers in a synopsis of the film. Read on at your own risk.

Talk is cheap.

It might cost you $100 an hour in a therapist’s office, but if it works, it could save you thousands in a misspent, opaque, out-of-control life.

Or for five bucks on a Tuesday, you can plop yourself down in a reclining seat with a free medium popcorn at a MJR Theater and watch the beautiful “A Beautiful Life in the Neighborhood” starring Tom Hanks as the now-deceased children’s TV star Mr. Rogers and Matthew Rhys as hard-bitten, award-winning investigative journalist Lloyd Vogel.

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Think of it as the best kind of cinematic therapy.

Vogel has become so nasty in his work that nobody will talk to him. His editor at Esquire magazine gives him an assignment to write a story about Mr. Rogers for a special issue on contemporary heroes.

“I don’t do puff pieces,” Rhys objects.

“Four hundred words,” the editor says. “Play nice.”

Vogel and his wife Angela, acted with backbone by Susan Kelechi Watson, have just had a baby but their relationship is imperiled by Vogel’s bitterness and self-importance. He is estranged from his father, a recovering alcoholic played with perfect pitch and puffy eyes by Chris Cooper. Vogel will not call him “Dad,” referring to him only by his first name, Jerry.

Jerry abandoned Lloyd and his sister when they were little, along with their dying mom. In an early scene, at his sister’s third wedding, Lloyd punches his dad and they fight. Lloyd subsequently refuses all of the old man’s attempts to make amends.

That makes Lloyd a perfect ‘patient’ for Mr. Rogers.

The film opens with Hanks/Mr. Roger’s singing “It’s a Beautiful Day…” as he enters the set of his TV show.

“This is a picture board,” he tells his audience. “Do you know what a picture board is?”

Mr. Rogers opens a door on the board to reveal a picture of Lloyd, his face still battered from his fight with his dad.

It’s hard to know if the scene is imagined by Lloyd or real. It doesn’t matter.

“Someone has hurt my friend Lloyd Vogel and not just his face,” says Mr. Roger.

Who is his audience?

It was the goal of Fred Rogers to peer into the camera as if into the eyes of every single child watching the show and letting them know that he loved them just the way they were.

In the movie, that child is Lloyd.

“Do you know what to forgive is?” asks Mr. Rogers. “It’s to release a person from the feeling of anger we have towards them. Sometimes it’s the hardest to forgive the ones we love.”

Director Marielle Heller frequently uses an elaborate, train-set-like model of Pittsburgh to transition between scenes, much as the TV show used a less elaborate model of the city in helping children locate the action. Instead of a mere method of geographic location, the technique suggests that the outside world is artificial, confected and alien. The real world, the human world, is the world of Mr. Rogers inside the TV set.

“I think he’s the nicest person I’ve ever met, but I don’t know if he’s for real,” Lloyd tells his wife.

For his talks with Mr. Rogers to resonate, Lloyd must be convinced of his reality.

It turns out that everyone who knows Mr. Rogers through his TV show loves him.

“I love him,” says wife Angela, to Lloyd’s surprise. She’s wary of his assignment. “Please don’t ruin my childhood.”

Fred Rogers seems too good to be true. He swims every day. He plays the piano. He’s a vegetarian.

“I can’t imagine eating anything with a mother,” Mr. Rogers tells Lloyd.

The fact that everyone loves Mr. Rogers represents a state of good mental health; skepticism or ignorance of Mr. Rogers symbolizes a mental health problem or something akin to an addiction. Lloyd eventually realizes that his dark skepticism is not universal, that he’s the one with the problem.

Riding a subway car with Mr. Rogers, Lloyd is stunned when everyone in the car begins to sing “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.”

In a luncheonette, Mr. Rogers tells him: “Your father helped you become who you are,” and he asks the reporter to think about “all of the people who loved us into being.”

In a hallucinatory moment, the whole restaurant grows quiet as if everyone is following Mr. Roger’s request.

As Mr. Roger’s studies Lloyd’s face, the camera pivots to focus on his dominant left eye, which continues to open and enlarge until it captures each of us singly in the movie theater.

At one point, Lloyd asks Mrs. Rogers what it’s like being married to a saint.

If you call him a saint, Joanne Rogers tells him, then his way of being becomes unattainable; believe me, he is not a saint.

There is no normal life without pain, Mr. Rogers assures Lloyd. One of his goals is to teach children how to deal with pain and intense emotions without hurting themselves or others.

One way is banging on the low-end keys of a piano. Another is talking about your feelings.

Mr. Rogers visits Lloyd’s dad Jerry as he nears death.

“Many people don’t feel comfortable talking about death,” Mr. Rogers says. “But to die is to be human. And anything human is mentionable. And anything mentionable is manageable.”

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