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‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’ Is a Surprisingly Risky Biopic

As down-the-middle as a movie starring Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers may sound, Marielle Heller’s film is full of big swings

Sony/Ringer illustration

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood hits theaters on Friday. This review of the movie (and My Name Is Dolemite) was originally published on September 10 after a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Early on in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, magazine writer Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) asks Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) about the difference between his private self and his public persona—much to the confusion of his subject. “Mr. Rogers is the character you play on television,” prods Vogel, trying to crack the saintly enigma sitting in front of him. But there’s no identity crisis here—Mr. Rogers is as Mr. Rogers does—and therein lies the conflict for Vogel. How do you write an exposé about somebody with nothing to expose?

The legendarily unblemished facade of Mr. Rogers was also the subject of Morgan Neville’s award-winning 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which examined the cultural impact of Rogers’s pioneering work as a television show host; its portrait of an analog-era icon was steeped in nostalgia even as it commented not-so-obliquely on the present moment. That Rogers was a religious conservative is well known, but his quietly radical approach to children’s entertainment, rooted in progressive psychology and steeped in a rhetoric of inclusion and tolerance, made it hard to peg him fully as a square. His show’s worldview was one of compassion for all, rendering his legacy especially precious in 2019. The film’s argument was that for all his influence, Rogers exists in today’s postmodern pop-cultural landscape as a structuring absence—that they don’t make them like that anymore.

The factual basis for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is flimsy: Vogel’s character is loosely based on Esquire author Tom Junod, whose 1998 article about Rogers doubled as an act of literary self-reflection, although not nearly to the same extent as is dramatized here. But Marielle Heller’s movie isn’t driving at docudrama authenticity; it’s more of a meditation on the meaning of Mr. Rogers, and of the implications—real and imagined—of a world made in his image. In a tremendously risky decision that goes well beyond any of the formal choices in last year’s Oscar-nominated Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Heller lets the aesthetic of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood intrude on the world outside its namesake’s Pittsburgh-based public-broadcast television studio; when the camera cruises the New York skyline over the opening credits, its gaze falls upon a hand-made scale model whose artificiality charmingly frames the story as a parable.

Certainly, Vogel could stand for some self-improvement: Encountering his estranged father (Chris Cooper) at a family wedding, he ignores the older man’s attempts at reconciliation before punching him out at the open bar, a fracas he angrily justifies to his wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), while sourly offering to pay for the damages. We’re meant to understand that Vogel’s lousy upbringing is threatening to make him a liability as a dad to his own newborn son, and when his editor offers him a gig writing about Mr. Rogers—a “puff piece” at odds with his typical hard-edged mandate—his disgust bumps up against a clear desire to briefly escape the domestic responsibilities he subconsciously dreads failing.

One way that we know A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a period piece is that Esquire is willing to send Lloyd back and forth for a 400-word profile (that sound you hear is a thousand bloggers collapsing with laughter). But it is also, in a very real way, a movie about anachronism and the feeling of being out of time. Everything about Rogers is old-fashioned, and the question of whether he’s a purveyor of eternal virtues or a self-deluding reactionary is left very much open. Either way, though, he seems to be so secure in himself—so proud of his accomplishments and open about his flaws—that Vogel, for all his millennial cynicism, can’t help but relate to him as a benign authority figure, to the point that he almost regresses to childhood midconversation.

The casting of Hanks is brilliant, of course: one affable American icon playing another. As in Captain Phillips and Sully, Hanks is playing a real person who is also a symbol of something larger, and he fully inhabits Rogers’s genuine, borderline overbearing empathy without resorting to shtick. In the best moments, Heller and Hanks show us what it looks like to simultaneously internalize and externalize a simplistic, scriptural idea of goodness, and how closely the end result resembles something like an idiot savant. But where Forrest Gump was an avatar of humble, uncomprehending compliance, there’s a slyness to Rogers that suggests a worldliness being held in reserve; and just as Hanks’s incarnation of the character never quite talks down to the people around him (adult and child alike), neither does the actor condescend to the role.

Ultimately, the true goal of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is to make the audience feel something, and at times, its emotionalism can be bullying; juxtaposing the realism of Hanks’s portrayal against Vogel’s jerry-rigged hang-ups only calls attention to the artifice of the screenwriting. And yet Heller takes enough big swings that a couple connect. In a moment that works as the culmination of her fourth-wall breaking, the director puts her protagonists in a Chinese restaurant where Rogers asks Vogel to take a minute of silence and imagine all the people in his life whose love has gotten him to where he is; because it’s Mr. Rogers talking, the other patrons fall silent and participate in the same thought exercise. Instead of training the camera on Vogel during this passage of eerie quiet, we see Rogers’s face, his eyes gazing past the screen and directly at us, an open invitation to join in from our spot in the darkness of the movie theater. It’s a gesture located at the three-way intersection of confrontation, communion, and cheesiness, and you’re well within your rights to roll your eyes when it happens—that is, unless there’s something in them that you need to wipe away first.

There’s no comparable heart-tugging in Craig Brewer’s Dolemite Is My Name, a much more conventional and celebratory biopic designed to give viewers exactly what they want. In this sense, it actually fulfills the elusive bond between form and content, since Rudy Ray Moore—the stand-up comedian turned maverick movie star best known for playing the heroic pimp Dolemite in a series of ’70s blaxploitation classics—was one of the great panderers of his era. Recognizing the niche commercial potential for an African American movie icon, Moore adopted the pseudo-superheroic persona and rode it brazenly and shamelessly into the ground. 1975’s Dolemite, adapted from Moore’s nightclub act and modeled on contemporaneous counterculture blockbusters like Billy Jack and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, would be the definition of a guilty pleasure if not for the sheer, liberating pride that it takes in its own vulgarity; its star’s defiance of authority, good taste, and even the basic conventions of moviemaking gets at the essence of cult cinema. Loving Dolemite means never having to say you’re sorry.

Moore’s status as a touchstone for several generations of African American comedians—and hip-hop artists, including Dolemite superfan and spiritual inheritor Ol’ Dirty Bastard—makes a victory-lapping tribute inevitable, and arguably overdue. The timing is excellent, in that Eddie Murphy has come of age to play Moore as the sagging late-middle-aged palooka who shambled his way through Dolemite’s kung-fu choreography; slouchy and slack beneath his resplendent ’70s fashions (the costume design is by Oscar winner Ruth E. Carter), Murphy cuts a humorously full figure. He’s always been a brilliant physical and verbal mimic, and the prospect of his leaning into Moore’s on- and offscreen eccentricity is beyond promising—more like a prophecy fulfilled.

All of which is why Murphy’s performance is such an odd disappointment—one that Dolemite Is My Name never quite recovers from. It may be that the star reveres his character too much, but for whatever reason, he doesn’t quite get inside Moore’s weirdness—the off-kilter quality that keeps Dolemite from ever being too endearing onscreen. There’s no tension in his acting, just exuberant mania.

Similarly, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the seasoned veterans behind the scripts for Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and Man on the Moon, haven’t really given the story any stakes. In a clever opening scene, we see Moore pleading with a low-rent DJ (Snoop Dogg) to play one of the middling doo-wop records he recorded in the 1960s; he’s worried that time has passed him by. His creation of the Dolemite character is thus shown as an attempt to double down on nostalgia, drawing on a long-established oral comic tradition, but there’s no further attempt to interrogate what Moore’s comic style meant in its moment. We just keep being shown re-creations of his act while Brewer cuts to people laughing uproariously—leaving no chance for the audience themselves to decide what’s funny or not.

This same laziness defines the film’s second half, which depicts the making of Dolemite according to the beats of a typical behind-the-scenes comedy: It’s like a period version of The Disaster Artist. Which is not to say that seeing some of Dolemite’s most iconic moments restaged shot-for-shot isn’t funny, or that Wesley Snipes’s performance as the aggrieved-actor-turned-director-for-hire D’Urville Martin isn’t hilarious. (Snipes’s gallery of reaction shots, with the urbane D’Urville evincing a mix of horror and bewilderment at his own mercenary handiwork, should be enough for a Best Supporting Actor nomination.) In fact, all of the actors, including Craig Robinson, Keegan-Michael Key, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and Bob Odenkirk (nicely cast as a sleazy indie distributor) are having a good time. But those good vibes are infectious only to a point, and two hours of strenuously conflict-free high jinks, with didactic dialogue asserting Moore’s importance, eventually gets wearying.

In trying to honor Moore’s disreputable, half-cocked genius, Dolemite Is My Name ends up simplifying and sanitizing it. Fans will enjoy it and Netflix-driven newcomers will learn something, but all it made me want to do after was watch ODB’s epochal video “Got Your Money,” which offers an equally heartfelt tribute to Moore—and, in its last lines, Eddie Murphy—in just four glorious minutes.