A film from one of Hollywood’s most successful directors, based on his early life, appropriately begins in a theater and ends on a movie set.
Clearly a very personal film for Steven Spielberg, The Fabelmans is both a coming-of-age journey and a form of expensive therapy, with John Williams offering beautiful mood music.
The screenplay – Spielberg is once again collaborating with playwright Tony Kushner – chronicles both young director Sammy Fabelman’s first 20 years and the cracks in his parents’ torturous marriage. Focus gets a little blurry at times, to be honest, and it often doesn’t add up to much.
For a film by a director, about a director, the main character is surprisingly clueless. We first meet a terrified little Sammy Fabelman outside a New Jersey movie theater playing Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 classic The Greatest Show on Earth. He’s suddenly too scared to see his first movie.
“Movies are dreams you never forget,” says his mother, a frustrated concert pianist played by Michelle Williams, trying to persuade him. “Dreams are scary,” he replies.
This film – with a terrible train accident traumatizing the boy – changes Fabelman forever. Filmmaking is his passion for the next several decades, although his father, an engineer, has described it as a mere hobby. As for why Sammy needs to direct, we’re told, might have something to do with wanting to be in control. But we won’t get that far with him on the couch.
We then jump in time to see a teenage Sammy moving to Arizona with his family and casting all of his Boy Scout friends in a makeshift western inspired by John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Played with genuine honesty by Gabriel LaBelle, this Sam has transformed him into a cute star-producing vehicle.
Meanwhile, an over-the-top Williams has come into focus — a mom who’s a little wacky, sometimes goofy, and sometimes downright dangerous, like throwing all four of her kids into a tornado. You can walk out of the theater knowing as much about what’s going on with her as you did when you arrived. “You really see me,” she eventually says to her son, but the rest of us really don’t.
We learn that things aren’t all honky-dory at home, and that something might be going on between mom, dad (a delightfully stiff Paul Dano) and dad’s best friend (really good Seth Rogen). Audiences will not be surprised when this is revealed. And the way our hero finds out is pure cinema – he sees clues in his own home movies. And he confronts the perpetrator as only an auteur filmmaker would – instead of speaking, he shows an edited film.
The Fabelmans gets a boost of energy when Judd Hirsch emerges as an estranged uncle who was once in the circus. He immediately sees in his nephew a fellow artistic spirit who has to choose between family and his art, just like his mother did. “It will rip your heart out and leave you lonely. Art is not a game. Art is as dangerous as a lion’s mouth,” his uncle tells him. “We are junkies and art is our drug.”
One big wet Valentine’s Day for filmmaking, The Fabelmans fits into the latest wave of backward-looking directors, including Alejandro Iñárritu’s Bardo, Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun, Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast and James Gray’s Armageddon Time “. And Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age Almost Famous has just landed on Broadway in musical form.
Many of these projects seem to passionately champion the healing and community power of art through preaching to the convert. And they often do it with such affection and awe that it becomes far too intoxicating. They get high on their own stash.
In the third act of The Fabelmans, the Spielberg family – sorry Fabelman Family – relocates again, this time to California and the film angles in a different direction, with an unlikely romance amidst the reality of anti-Semitism, culminating in a lesson about the power of film to create an image. But it shares the rest of the film’s heightened mannerisms, the artificiality of its supposedly wacky humor, and its tendency to create little arias of theatrical language.
The film ends with a warning to the young filmmaker from none other than the great director John Ford (a hysterical cameo by David Lynch). “This business will tear you apart,” he growls. And yet Fabelman is overjoyed to bond with his hero and doesn’t listen. After all, he’s a junkie. But those of us non-successful Hollywood directors might like it when he turns his camera on things other than himself.
“The Fabelmans,” a limited release from Universal Pictures on Friday and November 23, is rated PG-13 for some strong language, thematic elements, brief violence, and drug use. Running time: 151 minutes. Two stars out of four.