After entertaining audiences for nearly fifty years with groundbreaking blockbusters and epic dramas such as Jaws, The Raiders of the Lost Ark, jurassic parkand Schindler’s listSteven Spielberg turns the lens on himself with his latest film, The Fabelmans. The recent tendency of filmmakers to re-examine their lives (Sam Mendes’ Empire of Lightby James Gray armageddon time) sees Spielberg’s foray as a confessional and heartfelt ode to cinema. As you’d expect, the director’s signature childlike wonder sparkles in every frame. With brilliant cinematographer Janusz Kaminski at his side and a brooding score by John Williams, it’s a nostalgic, sunny and visually arresting journey back to one artist’s origins. If only the plot was as compelling as the shooting.
It’s the early 1950s and Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams) Fabelman are lining up at a movie theater with their seven-year-old son Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) to see the juggernaut drama of Cecil B. DeMille, The greatest show on earth. Since it’s Sammy’s first time going to the movies, his parents do their best to allay his fears. His father, an electrical technician, explains how the projector works, while his mother, a former pianist and full-time eccentric, tells him that watching a movie is like “stepping into a dream”. As we will see, Sammy adopts the character traits of both his parents (the technician and the artist) as he embarks on a love affair with cinema.
We spend a few years with Sammy as a teenager (Gabriel LaBelle, in a starring role) after moving with his family to Arizona. There, he made mini-westerns and World War II epics with his Boy Scout buddies. At first, Burt and Mitzi are simply puzzled, but quickly realize that their son’s interest in movies is not just a passing fancy, but an obsession. These scenes possess a genuine joy and love for creativity that the rest of the film struggles to match.
Soon, the cracks in her parents’ marriage begin to show. While Burt, played by Dano with quiet dissonance, loves his wife and wholeheartedly accepts her extravagant behavior, Mitzy descends into fits of hysteria where she dances maniacally in front of her children or shoves them into the eye of a tornado. who passed. Williams gives a flawless turn as a woman who defiantly seethes against her hidden emotions. Although her performance is borderline bombshell, it’s one of the best things about the movie. If anything, she’s just too gritty for Spielberg’s sugar-coated universe. The screenplay, written by Spielberg and Tony Kushner, keeps us at bay with dialogue that oscillates between artfully wise, ridiculous and schmaltzy. Compared to films that deal with similar themes like Wildlife (Dano’s first film as a director) and Marriage Story, it’s a fairly lackluster portrayal of a difficult subject.
The film comes to life when we spend time with Sammy and his love of cinema. You just wish there were more. Why weren’t there more scenes of Sammy going to the movies, talking about his favorite filmmakers, and furthering his education? The narrative should take us down a movie rabbit hole with Sammy in the lead. As it stands, the film merely scratches the surface. And we never really know Sammy himself. As portrayed, he is more of a weak portrayal than a thoroughbred teenager with the requisite quirks and frailties.
What Spielberg lacks in characterization he makes up for by shaping his theme regarding the burdens of becoming an artist. This becomes evident in a scene where Sammy edits some of the family footage he’s shot and discovers that his mom is probably having an affair with his dad’s best friend, Uncle Bennie (Seth Rogen). There’s also a superb visit from his uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), a former carnival huckster and silent film actor. Recognizing a creative colleague in his nephew, Boris gives a fiery monologue on the nature of being an artist, warning him that art and family will always be at odds. “Art,” he yells. “Go tear yourself up!”
As his family begins to crumble, Sammy loses his ambition and abandons his camera. After they move to Northern California, Sammy’s life spirals out of control. At his new high school, he is not only bullied by a pair of anti-Semitic athletes, but falls in love with a girl with a penchant for extreme Christianity. It was then that he retrieved his camera from his closet and reclaimed it. Tasked with filming his classmates during their “ditch day” by the beach, Sammy projects the finished product to everyone on prom night, and in one fell swoop, he not only cements his talent as a filmmaker, but he avenges himself on his enemies. Cinema is powerful.
The film ends as he is about to begin an exciting career in Los Angeles. Frustrated with his inability to find a job in Hollywood, Sammy begins to have panic attacks and wonder if he is 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 an actual director who we won’t spoil). The scene is worth the whole movie.
The Fabelmans is an exhausting and hazy experience. The narrative swings back and forth like a pendulum and never finds a comfortable place to land. As a family drama, it requires more emotional density and psychological nuance than Spielberg is able to provide. Yes, he is a master craftsman but human complexity has never been his forte. Like his hero filmmaker, David Lean, Spielberg makes films that don’t require him to explore the pathologies of his characters; their complexities are already hard-wired into the story. Deep down, he’s a classicist. For this incredibly personal venture, the 75-year-old veteran had to kill his darlings 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 quagmire of his memories. Even if Icarus flies too close to the sun, you’ll still enjoy the burn.
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