Cultural hegemony can take many forms, not all of them obviously malevolent: it's there in singers affecting the accent of the hegemon rather than their own, in the hope of getting more air-play on hegemonic radio; it's there in TV series casting foreign actors, again to improve their chances of sales in lucrative markets abroad. It's there in the language that we use: I'm sure many British people talk casually of 'taking the Fifth' or 'stepping up to the plate' even though they have virtually no idea what these expressions originally referred to.
Doesn't work the other way, of course: if I talked about being on a sticky wicket in Lowman, Idaho, I imagine I would just get stared at, and if I had the presumption to try and release a film about the life of John Noakes or Johnny Morris in the USA I would probably be referred for psychiatric assessment. But hegemony is hegemony, which is why UK cinemas are currently screening Marielle Heller's A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. (The analogy in the middle of this paragraph almost breaks down when you consider that many stalwart British children's TV presenters from years ago are now disgraced to the point of being outright pariahs. But I digress.)
The movie is set in 1998 and concerns Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a brilliant investigative journalist working for Esquire magazine, whose talents are increasingly failing to the mask the fact that he is contending with his own bitterness and cynicism – almost to the point of misanthropy. Lloyd doesn't really see the problem, but his wife (Susan Kelechi Watson) certainly does, especially after a trip to a family wedding goes very badly – this is probably an understatement, considering the occasion concludes with Vogel getting into a fistfight with his own father (Chris Cooper) and being thrown out.
Lloyd is less than thrilled, all things considered, to be given the assignment of writing for an issue on contemporary American heroes – especially given that he is told to go and interview Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks), a children's TV presenter based in Pittsburgh.
(Here, of course, we come across one of those cultural and national faultlines which almost seem invisible until they become important. Fred Rogers is virtually unknown outside of the United States: his programme, Mr Rogers' Neighborhood, was never shown over here, and prior to this movie I was only dimly aware of him, this itself because the show did a set visit to The Incredible Hulk in 1979 and that segment is up on YouTube. In short, Fred Rogers is a beloved icon to generations of Americans who remember him fondly from childhood; there isn't really a comparable figure in British culture – only adult entertainers like Ronnie Barker or Eric Morecambe come close, I would imagine.)
Well, Lloyd flies off to Pittsburgh to interview Fred, and finds himself nonplussed by the sheer sweetness, gentle kindness, and utter decency of his subject. Can this guy really be genuine? Every instinct tells him that it can't be the case, and his mission becomes to uncover the truth about Fred Rogers. But what if the truth is what it seems to be? All this time, as well, Lloyd is still contending with his fraught relationship with his father and his feelings of resentment towards him after he walked out on the family. But the benign influence of Fred Rogers seems to be having an effect on him…
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood has only secured a relatively minor release in the UK, probably because it will prove somewhat baffling to the average British viewer: the film is initially staged as an episode of Mr Rogers' Neighborhood, as Hanks comes on, delivers the opening routine, and then introduces Lloyd and his situation as if it's an item on the programme (one made for very young children, I should mention). If you or your children grew up watching Fred Rogers, I imagine this is terribly resonant, funny and charming; the same can be said for the way that some of the transitions in the movie are executed using models in the style of those on the show. For anyone else it is just a bit weird and slightly Charlie Kaufman-esque: like a joke you're not quite in on. This never quite stops being an issue with the movie.
Of course, the main reason this film isn't just playing in art-houses is that it does feature one of Hollywood's finest actors and biggest stars in a key role. Tom Hanks, if we're honest, doesn't look much like Fred Rogers, even with the wig and so on he's been issued with, and obviously my own ability to judge how well he's captured Rogers' demeanour is very limited. However, given that one of the premises of the movie is that Fred Rogers was – and the word is used – a kind of saint, then he is hugely successful. There is obviously a thin line between radiating the kind of decency, sincerity and compassion which Rogers apparently did and just coming across as absurdly cheesy, but Hanks mostly stays on the right side of it. (The modern world being what it is, there have been complaints that while Rogers' achievements as a host, educator, puppeteer, and author of books such as Going to the Potty are made clear, the fact he was also a minister and a man of deep religious faith is rather understated.)
I should also say that Matthew Rhys is very good in what's a much less showy part. His character arc for the movie is not the most original, but Rhys' performance and a charming script do make this a very satisfying and enjoyable drama, even if you disregard the fact it is largely framed in the context of a children's TV show you may or may not have any awareness of. Hollywood's fondness for doing stories about people contending with father issues has become a bit of a standing joke – one wonders what this says about the pathology of the place – but this is a superior one.
The only slightly disappointing thing is that this is billed at the start as being (all together now) 'Inspired by true events', but at the end it is revealed that the magazine article on Fred Rogers was written by Tom Junod: it would seem that Lloyd Vogel, his family, and his story are all essentially fictitious, created for the purposes of a film about what a great man Fred Rogers was. I've written about this kind of thing before recently: once you start mixing 'real' people and fictional characters together in this way, the question of what exactly it is you're doing becomes a pressing one. You're either telling a true story or you're not. I'm sure Fred Rogers was every bit as inspirational a figure as he is presented here: but if so, why not just stick to the facts? If he wasn't, then why fictionalise the story?
But this is a more general point about the whole genre of films to which this belongs. I thought this was a very warm, charming and satisfying drama, rather more to my taste than Heller's last film, Can You Ever Forgive Me? The performances and structure are more than good enough to make up for the fact that the film seems to be presuming a familiarity with Mr Rogers and his neighbourhood which simply won't exist for many viewers. Certainly one of the better films of the year so far.
Also This Week...
...given the Post Editor's dislike of ampersands, Melinda Matsoukas' Queen & Slim is unlikely to make it onto his list of Films of the Year (not least because it had its US release over two months ago). Quite why Queen & Slim is actually called Queen & Slim remains a bit obscure, but it is a powerful and vibrant movie. Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith play a young Ohio couple who, driving home after a not-very-successful first date, are stopped by a racist cop. Things go very badly wrong, and the couple are forced to go on the run, leaving the cop's body behind them, utterly certain the fact that they were acting in self-defence will not protect them from a corrupt establishment.
Sounds like another angry, impassioned film about racial tensions in the modern USA, and it is, but it's also considerably more sophisticated than that sounds: there is nuance and irony here aplenty, for one thing. The protagonists are actually slightly appalled to be adopted as symbols of injustice when all they want to do is flee to safety outside the US – a scene depicting dire events at a protest concerning their plight is pointedly intercut with the two of them being rather more preoccupied with, um, personal and intimate relationship stuff, if you know what I mean. The movie does suggest that in a troubled and often bleak world, you have to find your joy wherever you can, and it's as strong on the whoosh and zing of falling in love as it is on the grim political stuff. Some of the symbolism is subtle, some isn't, but this is an impressive movie in every department.
...if there's one thing the Editor dislikes more than an ampersand, it's a comic book movie, and the unwieldily-titled Birds of Prey (or the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (directed by Cathy Yan) is unlikely to do much to help his condition. Yet another film set in Gotham City, although with its most famous resident not appearing: irritating homicidal pole dancer Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is dumped by her boyfriend the Joker (also not appearing) and gets mixed up with the hunt for a McGuffin diamond; various other very obscure Batman-related characters do turn up.
Let us not forget that after years of making films which were critically reviled box-office underperformers, DC and Warner Brothers finally came up with an Oscar-nominated smash hit last year with their previous Batman-free Batman film. Birds of Prey, however, will simply just do your head in for nearly two hours: it is garish and frenetic, and the sense that it's treating the viewer as an idiot is much stronger than even with most franchise movies. It doesn't seem to have occurred to the writers that if you present casually breaking someone's legs as being somehow cute and funny, it may impact on your ability to take the moral high ground on any other issue (there is inevitably a facile and reductionist you-go-girl subtext). Colourful and energetic, with decent action choreography, but also amoral, shallow and dimwitted – the kind of movie that almost inclines me to agree with the Editor about superhero films.