A quote from Fred Rogers is getting major play across the Internet: “There are three ways to ultimate success. The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.”
It is no surprise that Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, based on a 1998 Esquire profile of Rogers, is illustrative of this maxim. This is the second film about Rogers in as many years—the first, Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor, was the most financially successful documentary of all time. But if you expect A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood to be a fictional replay of the documentary, think again. Heller’s film, with an elegant and genuinely surprising screenplay by Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue, reminds us that true kindness requires a depth of thought and feeling that is the opposite of easy.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood begins as an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, with Tom Hanks as Rogers doing a letter-perfect imitation of Rogers, down to the cardigan, the sneakers and the off-key singing of the show’s twinkly theme song. But then Rogers shows us something we don’t expect: a picture of a depressed, angry-looking man with a gash on his nose. This, Rogers tells us, is his friend Lloyd Vogel, and he is having trouble forgiving the person who hurt him.
We find out immediately about Lloyd (Matthew Rhys) and the person who hurt him—his father Jerry (Chris Cooper). Lloyd, his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) and their infant son attend his sister’s wedding; Jerry is there, making a drunken toast to the bride and mocking Lloyd’s efforts at fatherhood. Lloyd hates Jerry, whom he cannot forgive for deserting his dying mother. A fistfight ensues, hence the gash on Lloyd’s nose.
Lloyd, based on the writer Tom Junod, is a writer/interviewer for Esquire notorious for his confrontational, hard-edged style. So he reacts badly to his editor assigning him an interview with Rogers at the WGBH studio in Pittsburgh for an upcoming issue on heroes. Someone who preaches niceness as ardently as Rogers, he insists, can only be a phony.
Without giving away the surprises Heller, Harpster and Fitzerman-Blue have in store, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is the story of Lloyd and how his encounter with Rogers changed, and perhaps saved, his life. Heller’s imaginative direction blends live action with the beloved Tinkertoy graphics of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, creating a scintillating fusion of fantasy and reality; at one point, Lloyd dreams he’s one of the puppets on the show. This proves the perfect setting for the performances of Hanks and Rhys, which are of extraordinary subtlety and humanity. One scene, in which Lloyd interviews Rogers, exemplifies the excellence of both the acting and writing. Lloyd asks Rogers about playing the Mister Rogers “character;” Rogers has no idea what he’s talking about. Lloyd then asks him what it’s like to be a hero.
Rogers denies any aspirations to heroism; all he is, he says, is a flawed man who has learned from the experiences of his own life. He tells Lloyd he was a fat child, mocked by his classmates and filled with rage against them. Nor was everything perfect, or anything close to perfect, once he became an adult. One of his own sons, he admits, could not until recently even admit to his friends that his father was Mister Rogers.
Then, gently, Rogers turns the questions on Lloyd, and the content of those questions is the crux of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, opening a pathway for Lloyd to find joy in his life.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood has a simple but profound thesis: that as an adult you must look deeply into yourself, delve into what Yeats called “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart,” to achieve the forgiving nature and moral clarity of a child. Heller does not provide the sentimental uplift we expect from the film, but something far deeper and more moving. I hope the message cuts through the usual commercial static of the holiday movie season to find a large and appreciative audience.
Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is a far more flamboyant film than A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, but it too stresses the necessity of being kind by showing us one kind character set against a battalion of negative examples.
The film, from Johnson’s own screenplay, begins with the police investigation of the apparent suicide of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), an internationally famous author of murder mysteries. His housekeeper has found him dead in his study in the attic of his vast mansion, a weaponry-filled Gothic edifice one detective describes as “a living Clue board.”
The situation gets even more interesting with the appearance of Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a gentlemanly private detective who has been hired anonymously to investigate Harlan’s death. With the aid of the police, Blanc interviews Harlan’s eccentric and rebarbative survivors: brittle realtor daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her Trumpite husband Richard (Don Johnson); Linda and Richard’s black sheep son Ransom (Chris Evans); inept son Walt (Michael Shannon) who runs his father’s publishing house largely because he can’t find a job anywhere else; and daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), who is a singularly dubious lifestyle guru.
All of them, it turns out, have good reasons to have wanted Harlan out of the way. But all of them, and Benoit Blanc and the police as well, get an earth-shattering surprise when Harlan’s will is read: his entire fortune, his mansion and publishing house and transcendently valuable copyrights, go to Marta (Ana de Armas), his nurse. Marta has an interesting personality quirk, which the other characters find helpful: whenever she tells a lie, she throws up.
There are many surprises, red herrings and turns of fate along the way, all of which serve simultaneously to pay homage to the traditional, Agatha Christie-style whodunit and to gently yet firmly subvert it. Johnson announced himself as a unique and idiosyncratic talent in 2005 with Brick, a brilliant debut film in which he set a 1940s-style film noir in a contemporary California high school—a brazenly perfect metaphor for the angst and isolation of adolescence.
Johnson’s subsequent films—The Brothers Bloom, Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi—continued his course of technical and narrative daring, delighting some viewers and alienating others. Knives Out is Johnson’s commercial breakthrough, proving he can make a mass crowd-pleaser without benefit of a franchise. The film contains all the breakneck twists and turns any mystery fan could wish, along with a superb cast having a ball playing the scurvy lot of rogues that comprises the Thrombey family. Yet the murder, the mystery, and even the Thrombeys are not the crux of Knives Out. As Hitchcock might opine, they are all the McGuffins.
It isn’t really giving away anything to say that Knives Out is all about Marta, because that is apparent virtually from the film’s beginning. Marta is a shining spirit—the only one in the story, as Benoit Blanc notes toward the end. The Thrombeys tell the police over and over how much they love and value Marta, yet none of them can remember what South American country she comes from. And, when it becomes expedient to threaten her, they do not hesitate.
In one sense, the danger Marta faces is a variation on the ancient damsel-in-distress narrative. But in another, Marta is emblematic of millions of people who came to American seeking opportunity and found only hostility. This gives Knives Out (pardon the pun) a very pointed relevance to today’s political situation, about which I need not say more.
De Armas, best known for playing Ryan Gosling’s holographic lover in Blade Runner 2049, gives a star-making performance here, so endearing and sympathetic that you want to leap onto the screen and save her yourself. Johnson gives her a doozy of a final scene, emphasizing his thesis and giving the audience the welcome thrill of seeing virtue rewarded. It’s a nice message for the Christmas season, straight from Handel’s Messiah: Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low.