Audrey Kupferberg: "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood" And "Emma" | WAMC

Audrey Kupferberg: "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood" And "Emma"

Jun 26, 2020

Audrey Kupferberg

Two feature films, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and Emma., have some real entertainment value but suffer from a number of shortcomings.

In A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Tom Hanks plays Mr. Rogers.  Yes, the wonderful Fred Rogers of TV legend.  It is a downy family-friendly drama in part, in which Mr. Rogers is interviewed by Lloyd Vogel, a very inquisitive investigative reporter who is stepping out of his gumshoes in order to do a lightweight magazine interview.  But this film soon loses its soft tone when a darker storyline becomes dominant. 

As it turns out, the journalist comes from a dysfunctional family; he loves his wife and baby but cannot tolerate his father. So…. kindly Mr. Rogers makes it his business to investigate Lloyd’s family feud and heal the nastiness.  The plot of the film is based on a real-life situation, and it is known to the real Fred Rogers’ circle of friends and colleagues that he much preferred interviewing his interviewers, rather than being asked questions about himself.  So the part of the script in which Mr. Rogers is a likable busybody is credible.

There are several high points to this film, particularly one scene that is being used to promote the film.  Mr. Rogers and Lloyd are seated on a subway train when the king of children’s TV is spotted by a group of youngsters.  They begin performing the show’s famous theme song, and soon others join in the singing.  It’s a high-spirited moment.  Other striking scenes involve Mr. Rogers interacting with his beloved puppet Daniel Tiger. Those sequences were delightful and quite touching.

With such terrific moments, what was disappointing in A Day in the Neighborhood?  Two things.  First of all, Hanks’s interpretation of Mr. Rogers is bothersome.  He speaks like a gentle robot and his conversation is so goody-goody that his words become cloying.  Secondly, the screenplay handles Lloyd’s issue of family dysfunction with such facility that people who have experienced such problems might laugh or sneer at the tidy solution.

Emma. is based on a comedy novel in three volumes by Jane Austen.  It has been adapted to the cinema several times, including Clueless in 1995.  In judging the 2020 feature, I intend to make no comparisons to Austen’s original work nor the screen adaptations.  It should stand on its own.  Anya Taylor-Joy plays Emma Woodhouse, a rich, smug young woman who voices strong opinions about everyone she encounters and enjoys manipulating her friends’ lives.  She is unmarried and enjoys living with her widowed father, played by Bill Nighy.  Bill Nighy is a highly talented actor, unique in his mannerisms and a true stylist.  His comical moves and understated expressions make watching Emma. worthwhile. 

There are many weak points, including a lifeless script and too many characters who are insipid and forgettable.  Other than Bill Nighy who is intended mainly to provide the occasional bit of humor, only one character other than Emma held my attention.  That is Mr. Knightley, who comes off as likeable, relatable, and well-developed.  Mr. Knightley is Emma’s friend, a kindly young man who is both appealing and intelligent.  The actor playing him is Johnny Flynn, who is a British poet, musician, and actor.  Flynn wrote a new folk song called “Queen Bee” which he sings over the final credits.  While he has appeared on screen since 2005, it is his performance in Emma. that likely will bring him to a good number of strong roles in the future.

My friend Sonia Long, who is a devoted fan of Jane Austen, tells me that Austen’s novel includes some amount of substance about the workings of society.  Here I cannot stop myself from comparing the idea of the novel to this film in which substance is present on occasion, but feeble in its presentation and quick to disappear.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

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