Spielberg’s The Fabelmans: An Artful yet Unfocused Ode to Filmmaking

After entertaining audiences for nearly fifty years with groundbreaking blockbusters and epic dramas such as Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, and Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg turns the lens on himself with his latest film, The Fabelmans. The recent trend of filmmakers reexamining their lives (Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light, James Gray’s Armageddon Time) sees Spielberg’s foray as a coming-of-age confessional and heartfelt ode to cinema. As you’d expect, the director’s signature childlike wonderment sparkles in every frame. With the brilliant cinematographer Janusz Kaminski by his side, and a moody score by John Williams, it’s a nostalgic, sun-dappled, visually arresting journey into an artist’s origin. If only the plot was as compelling as the filmmaking.

It’s the early 50’s and Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams) Fabelman wait 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 on Earth. Since it’s Sammy’s first time at the movies, his parents do their best to quell 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’ll see, Sammy adopts both of his parents’ character traits (the technician and the artist) as he embarks on a love affair with film.

We jump a few years to Sammy as a teenager (Gabriel LaBelle, in a star-turning role) after he moves with his family to Arizona. There, he directs mini-Westerns and WW-II epics with his pals in the Boy Scouts. At first, Burt and Mitzi are merely bemused, but quickly realize their son’s interest in filmmaking isn’t just a passing fancy, but an obsession. These scenes possess a genuine joy and love for creativity which the rest of the film has a hard time matching.

Soon, the cracks in his parents’ marriage start to show. While Burt, played by Dano with a quiet dissonance, loves his wife and wholeheartedly accepts her outlandish behavior, Mitzy descends into bouts of hysteria where she maniacally dances in front of her children or drives them into the eye of a passing tornado. Williams gives an unflinching turn as a woman who defiantly seethes against her hidden emotions. Although her performance teeters on the edge of bombast, it’s one of the best things in the movie. If anything, she’s simply too gritty for Spielberg’s sugar-coated universe. The script, written by Spielberg and Tony Kushner, keeps us at bay with dialogue that switches between artfully wise to ridiculous and schmaltzy. Compared to movies that deal with similar themes like Wildlife (Dano’s own directorial debut) and Marriage Story, it’s a pretty lackluster depiction of a difficult subject.

The movie comes back to life when we spend time with Sammy and his love of filmmaking. You just wish there was more of it. Why weren’t there more scenes where Sammy goes to the movies, talks about his favorite filmmakers, and burrows deeper into his education? The narrative should take us down a rabbit hole of cinema with Sammy leading the way. As it is, the movie is satisfied with skimming the surface. And we never really get to know Sammy himself. As portrayed, he’s more of a faint representation than a full blooded teenager with the requisite quirks and frailties.

What Spielberg lacks in characterization he makes up for molding his theme regarding the burdens of becoming an artist. This becomes apparent in a scene when Sammy is editing some of the family footage he shot and discovers that his mother is probably having an affair with his father’s best friend, Uncle Bennie (Seth Rogen). There’s also a superb visit from his Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), a one-time carnival barker and silent movie actor. Recognizing a fellow creator in his nephew, Boris gives a fiery monologue about the nature of being an artist, warning him that art and family will always be at odds. “Art,” he screams. “Will tear you apart!”

As his family begins to crumble, Sammy loses his ambition and relinquishes his camera. After they relocate to Northern California, Sammy’s life spins out of control. In his new high school, he’s not only bullied by a pair of antisemitic jocks but falls for a girl with a penchant for extreme Christianity. That’s when he retrieves his camera from his closet and reclaims himself.  Tasked to film his fellow classmates during their beachside “ditch day,” Sammy screens the finished product to everyone on prom night, and in one fell swoop, he not only cements his talent as a filmmaker but exacts his revenge on his enemies. Cinema is powerful.

The movie concludes when he’s on the precipice of starting an exciting career in Los Angeles. Frustrated with his inability to get a job in Hollywood, Sammy starts having panic attacks and questioning if he’s doing the right thing. However, things change when he goes to a studio lot for an interview and unexpectedly meets one of his idols (played by a real-life director we won’t spoil). The scene is worth the entire film.

The Fabelmans is an exhausting and unfocused 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’s capable of providing. Yes, he’s a master craftsman but human complexity has never been his strong suit. Like his filmmaker hero, David Lean, Spielberg makes films that don’t require him to explore the pathologies of his characters; their complexities are already hardwired in the story. Basically, he’s a classicist. For this incredibly personal endeavor, the 75-year-old veteran needed to kill his darlings and take more chances. Still, he’s an original visionary, and there are enough transcendent moments, genuine laughs, and fantastic performances to keep it from sinking into the morass of his memories. Even as Icarus flies too close to the sun, you’ll still enjoy the burn.

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