After nearly fifty years of wowing audiences with groundbreaking blockbusters and epic dramas such as Jaw, Hunter of the lost treasure, Jurassic Parkand Schindlers ListSteven Spielberg turns the lens on himself with his latest film, The Fabelmans. The recent trend of filmmakers re-examining their lives (Sam Mendes’ realm of lightJames Grays Armageddon period) sees Spielberg’s foray into a coming-of-age commitment and heartfelt ode to cinema. As you might expect, the director’s characteristic childish wonder sparkles in every frame. With brilliant cinematographer Janusz Kaminski at his side and a moody score by John Williams, it’s a nostalgic, sun-kissed, visually arresting journey into an artist’s origins. If only the plot were as compelling as the filmmaking.
It’s the early 1950s and Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams) Fabelman are standing in line at a movie theater with their seven-year-old son Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) to see Cecil B. DeMille’s juggernaut drama. The greatest show in the world. With Sammy going to the movies for the first time, his parents do their best to allay his fears. His father, an electrical engineer, explains how the projector works, while his mother, a former pianist and full-time eccentric, tells him that watching a movie is like “entering a dream.” As we shall see, Sammy takes on the character traits of both his parents (the engineer and the artist) while embarking on a love affair with the film.
We jump a few years to Sammy as a teenager (Gabriel LaBelle, in a starring role) after he moved to Arizona with his family. There he stages mini-westerns and WWII epics with his buddies from the boy scouts. Burt and Mitzi are initially just amused, but quickly discover that their son’s interest in filmmaking isn’t just a passing whim, it’s an obsession. These scenes possess a genuine joy and love of creativity that the rest of the film struggles to match.
The cracks in his parents’ marriage soon become apparent. While Burt, played by Dano with a quiet dissonance, loves his wife and wholeheartedly accepts her outlandish behavior, Mitzy falls into bouts of hysteria, dancing maniacally in front of her children or driving them into the eye of a passing tornado. Williams gives an unabashed turn as a woman who defiantly seethes against her hidden feelings. Although her performance falters on the brink of bombast, it’s one of the best things about the film. If anything, it’s just too gritty for Spielberg’s frosting universe. The screenplay, written by Spielberg and Tony Kushner, keeps us at bay with dialogue that alternates between artfully clever, ridiculous and cheesy. Compared to films that deal with similar topics such wildlife (Dano’s own directorial debut) and wedding story, it’s a rather lackluster portrayal of a difficult subject.
The film comes alive again as we spend time with Sammy and his love of filmmaking. One just wishes there were more of these. Why weren’t there more scenes of Sammy going to the movies, talking about his favorite filmmakers and delving deeper into his education? The narrative should take us down a rabbit hole of cinema, with Sammy leading the way. So the film is content to just scratch the surface. And we never really get to know Sammy himself. As portrayed, he’s a poor representation rather than a full-blooded teenager with the requisite quirks and weaknesses.
What Spielberg lacks in characterization, he makes up for by shaping his subject matter about the burdens of being an artist. This is evident in a scene where Sammy edits some of the family photos he took and finds out that his mother is probably having an affair with his father’s best friend, Uncle Bennie (Seth Rogen). There’s also a great visit from his uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), a former carnival hooter and silent film actor. Recognizing a co-creator in his nephew, Boris delivers a fiery monologue about the nature of being an artist, warning him that art and family will always be at odds. “Art,” he shouts. “Will tear you apart!”
As his family begins to fall apart, Sammy loses his ambition and gives up his camera. After relocating to Northern California, Sammy’s life spirals out of control. At his new high school, he is not only bullied by two anti-Semitic athletes, but falls in love with a girl with a penchant for extreme Christianity. Then he takes his camera out of his closet and recaptures himself. Sammy is commissioned to film his classmates on their “digging day” at the beach and shows the finished product to everyone on prom night, and in one fell swoop he not only cements his talent as a filmmaker but exacts revenge on his enemies. Cinema is strong.
The film ends with him about to embark on an exciting career in Los Angeles. Frustrated that he can’t get a job in Hollywood, Sammy has panic attacks and wonders if he’s doing the right thing. However, things change when he goes to a studio for an interview and unexpectedly meets one of his idols (played by a real director who we don’t want to spoil). The scene is worth the whole movie.
The Fabelmans is a strenuous and unfocused experience. The narrative swings back and forth like a pendulum, never finding a comfortable landing spot. As a family drama, it requires more emotional density and psychological nuance than Spielberg can offer. Yes, he’s a master of his craft, but human complexity has never been his forte. Like his filmmaking hero David Lean, Spielberg makes films that don’t require him to explore his characters’ pathologies; Their complexity is already hardwired into history. Basically it’s a classic. For this incredibly personal endeavor, the 75-year veteran had to kill his loved ones and take more risks. Still, he’s an original visionary, and there are enough transcendent moments, genuine laughs, and fantastic performances to keep him from sinking into the morass of his memories. Even if Icarus flies too close to the sun, you’ll still enjoy the burn.
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