Callie Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2019: Day 12

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, and First Love.

The thing about Tom Hanks in this stage of his career is that he has reached a status where, other than his voice role as Woody in the Toy Story series, it has become impossible for him to disappear into a role.  He is always Tom Hanks now.  He is always the persona of Tom Hanks, America’s Collective Father as he spoofed on Saturday Night Live a few years ago.  This decade especially, as the frequency of his feature film appearances has slowed down considerably, his every role plays on that persona to varying degrees, utilising him as a stand-in for a masculine American ideal; wise, aged, sensitive but not overly so – the one film which tried to subvert such an image was that horrendous adaptation of The Square from a few years back and Hanks floundered in that.  None of this is to disparage Hanks’ considerable proven-many-times-over talents, but rather to point out that casting him as a real-life person in a biopic, as many of his films this decade have done, means inherently sacrificing one of those “actor BECOMES the role” turns in your work since Tom Hanks has ascended to a status where he cannot be anyone other than Tom Hanks.

Yet, the announcement of his casting as Fred Rogers in the sort-of biopic A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Grade: B+), at least from where I’ve been sitting, prompted no horror, no double-takes, no pearl-clutching thinkpieces over how on earth Hanks would be able to pull off the role.  He looks nothing like Rogers, sounds nothing like Rogers, and his finished performance in-film despite much studying and efforts to recreate the cadences and tics of the beloved icon never convinces as Fred Rogers.  He is still Tom Hanks, cosplaying as Mister Rogers.  And yet, not despite but in fact because of that, he still turns in a phenomenally effective performance.  Hanks may not convince much as a replica of Mister Rogers, but he convinces fully as a personification of the values that Fred Rogers held, of the unique warmth, selfless understanding and radiant love he brought to millions of children and grown-ups through his modest little show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, for over 40 years.  The sincere belief he and others close to him held that he was no saint, despite what others may have said in the media, because sainthood infers that his way of existing is unobtainable when really, with a little hard work and commitment, we can all embody the purity and selflessness of Mister Rogers.  And that’s what Hanks brings to the role.  He may not be Fred Rogers in the way, say, Eddie Redmayne tried to be Stephen Hawking, but he is Fred Rogers in the ways that count.

This is indicative of A Beautiful Day as a movie overall.  Go into this expecting a Fred Rogers biopic and you will be disappointed. He’s more of a really important side character to the main story and the screenplay by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster staunchly refuses to dive beneath the skin of Rogers to see what else goes on in his mind or even to explain the significance of his attachment to children with terminal illnesses or the extra-special connection to his puppet friend Daniel.  (Last year’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is, in many respects, rather essential viewing going into A Beautiful Day.)  Instead, Rogers is a symbol for Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys playing an expy of Tom Junod whose 1998 Esquire article the movie is loosely based off of), a deeply cynical award-winning investigative journalist assigned to do a profile on Mr. Rogers by his editor for their magazine’s upcoming “heroes” issue.  Vogel, burned by being relegated to what he considers a “puff piece” and seething from the reappearance of his father (Chris Cooper) who abandoned the family at a critical juncture decades earlier, is looking for any hint that Fred is not the perfect saint everybody has made him out to be and is particularly drawn to his subject’s reticence to talk much about their own private life.

But what he’s really doing is trying to prove to himself that everybody is just as secretly miserable and bitter as he is because that way he can remain validated for stewing over the emotional pain he still hasn’t fully processed from when he was younger, which is what that kind of depression does.  Instead, over the course of his time spent in the company of Mister Rogers, the optimism, earnestness and genuine sincerity of the man starts to pierce through that darkness and enable Vogel to be seen in a manner he’s not allowed anyone else in his company to do for a long while.  Rogers embodies that selflessness, that vulnerability, that capacity for forgiveness and view that being broken is not a negative thing, as everything makes us who we are and makes us better when processed healthily, because he genuinely believes in them every day.  A Beautiful Day does the same thing; this is an extremely earnest, calm, sweet and emotionally truthful movie which translates and explores those messages and ideals from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood within the confines of an Awards Season biopic-ish framework.

So, yes, this is ruthlessly effective at extracting tears – pretty certain my first cry came during the taping of Daniel Tiger singing “The Mad That You Feel” and they basically did not stop until midway into the end credits scroll.  Director Marielle Heller, however, continues her bending of traditional genre conventions by not being afraid to call attention to the artifice of the story’s very somewhat-fictionalised nature, presenting the tale as not only existing in a movie-fied version of events but as an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood itself.  She visually replicates the low-quality public-access camerawork and bleeding primary colours in the interjecting wrap-around sequences, plus utilising some truly fantastic miniature work to transition from major location to major location in a manner which outdoes the scale of Rogers’ own miniatures but still maintains the rickety charm.  Whilst on a narrative level, the conceit allows Heller to make some of the least-emotionally complex yet most-cathartic cinema in her career to date – although the movie’s best pair of sequences, situated at the midpoint, have the exact nature of the baggage dragging down Vogel and his father go straight for the difficult gut in exactly the way the show used to.

Maybe not as essential as Won’t You Be My Neighbor? or as rewardingly complex as Heller’s previous features, then.  But A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is an extremely effective and moving tribute to the best ideals more of humanity could do with being governed by.  Of love and kindness, of selflessness and forgiveness, of being emotionally open and truthful.  Much like Hanks, it may not be the real thing, but it’s an approximation which stands in to a degree that’s rather inspirational.

For perhaps the total opposite of Mr. Rogers’ ideals, let’s turn to Takashi Miike who brought his 103rd film, the crime action rom-dramedy First Love (Grade: B) to the Festival on Friday.  Here’s a shameful Movie Nerd factoid for ya: this was my first Miike film ever.  Not intentionally, for the record.  Two years ago, the Festival programmed his centennial, Blade of the Immortal, and I was extremely excited to see the film only for it to play during the pre-Festival weeks and have all public screenings obviously sell out, whilst my East Asian Cinema module back in uni skipped over him entirely when talking about cult Japanese cinema, choosing instead to focus on Sion Sono.  (The other 24 years and 11 months of my life not covered by those excuses can be explained away as laziness.)  But better late than never, as they say, and on the 11th day of a Festival that’s often been rampantly self-serious and blue-balling in the trashy payoffs department (at least for myself), seeing a random man’s head be decapitated within the first two minutes was quite the shot of coffee I was craving.  Miike, evidently, does not fuck around.

In terms of plot and genre, we’re firmly in the ensemble crime caper routine where almost everybody is double-crossing someone else and the only people who aren’t complete dumbasses are the ones with as much genuine honour as they have smarts.  The specifics do not make a whole lot of sense – this is the kind of movie where a giant fuck-off brick shithouse of a one-armed man on nobody’s side with a giant fuck-off brick shithouse of a pump-action shotgun can turn up with the most minimal introduction for the climax and everyone just rolls with it – but the crime revolves around a mid-level Yakuza (Shōta Somentani) sabotaging his own cocaine deal with the aid of a corrupt cop (Nao Ōmori) in hopes of running off outta town with the coke and its cash.  But the emotional undercurrent, which is disarmingly and sincerely sweet between all the ultraviolence (apparently something rare for Miike), concerns a nihilistic boxer (Masataka Kubota) with a brain tumour who “saves” (it’s complicated) the young prostitute (Sakurako Konishi) that has inadvertently managed to become the focal point around which all this chaos swirls and the bond that quickly develops between the two.

And I do mean “quickly.”  Despite how complicated the specifics of the plotting can get, Miike knows that the viewer is here for some bloody barely-controlled insanity and he obliges by throwing everything and the kitchen sink at this thing.  There’s slapstick comedy revolving around a failed tasing, philosophical musings about the nature of gang warfare, a mobster’s violent vigilant girlfriend who T-1000’s herself to a moving car at one point, an It Follows-type hallucination which dogs the prostitute’s abusive past at the most inopportune times (and whose two payoffs are comedic gold), stern speeches about honour and acceptance of faith, plus a brief leaving of reality altogether for an animated interlude somehow not involving somebody being on drugs.  It’s directed with a relentless punk energy, a burning desire to get to the good stuff but also without having the set-up and emotional undercurrents come off as perfunctory obligation, and audaciously full-bore which is such a relief to see after a Festival where many movies which should have gone full-trash kept pulling back at the last minute.  This is the sort of movie where a drug addict finally turns a corner on their dependency after being confronted with the prospect of snorting a pile of cocaine on the main bad guy’s crotch as he’s bleeding out with an erection.

Perhaps completely unsurprisingly for anybody who has read even two articles of mine over the years, I had an absolute goddamn blast with First Love even as its pleasures felt very intentionally fleeting and disposable.  Perhaps that’s just what a director pushing 103 films and counting naturally brings to his projects.  I hope to discover that for myself when I get the time to do a dive into his filmography cos, much like a soon-to-be addict, I’ve had a free sample and immediately want to pay through the nose to get more of the good stuff.  It’s just a fun, mindless, assuredly-made splatter of excess and that makes a really vital tonic when one is so deep into a festival such as this.

Tomorrow: Charles Dance and Maxine Peake dance with the devil in the pale moonlight for Fanny Lye Deliver’d, and Martin Scorsese brings the curtain down on this year’s Festival with his gangster magnum opus The Irishman.

Callie Petch pulled the mirrors off their Cadillac cos they don’t like it looking like they look back.

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