Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Film Review: Steven Spielberg's Childhood Is On Display in Wonderful "The Fabelmans"

The Fabelmans (c) Universal Pictures

Film: The Fablemans 
In Cinemas 

Premise: Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi Fableman (Michelle Williams) are living in New Jersey in the 1950s and they decide that their son, young Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord), is old enough to see his first film in a movie theater, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” At first, they are afraid that Sammy would have nightmares, especially after the scene of a horrific train accident involving zoo animals and train robbers. But when he screams out that night, it isn’t because of fear – he knows what he wants for Hanukkah: a train set. So starts the journey of director Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical stand-in, who uses Burt’s small camera to recreate the train crash, which ultimately leads to teenage Sam (now played by Gabriel LaBelle) making Western films with his boy scout pals. The Fabelmans are now living in Arizona for Burt’s job, with three daughters added to them and their best friend Bennie (Seth Rogen) in tow. But when Burt’s job uproots the family again, this time to Los Angeles, cracks begin to show, especially with Mitzi, a former classical pianist whose restlessness and unhappiness take its toll on everyone. Sam is now in high school and as one of the few Jewish students, his biggest obstacle is the antisemitic jocks (with another “West Side Story” mini-rumble in the gym), but he is also now closer to Hollywood and dreams one day to be involved with the film industry somehow (spoiler alert: I think he’ll make it). 

The Fabelmans (c) Universal Pictures

My Take: It is incredible to think that on a weekend in mid-November, what will probably be the biggest box office hit of the season was released, along with a small indie film on two screens in NYC, and Steven Spielberg directed the latter. While “Wakanda Forever” keeps dominating the multiplexes, Spielberg’s modest effort, his first movie to ever play in competition at a film festival, will finally open wide this Thanksgiving in its ultimate push for Oscar recognition. And even then, the box office success won’t be on the level of any of his other movies, for this is a small ($40M, small for Spielberg) coming-of-age film. And while his impulse in earlier films is to go sentimental, thankfully, his current favorite collaborator, co-writer, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner (who also wrote “Lincoln” and “West Side Story”) reined most of that in, although not completely. The first half hour of the film has a nostalgic sheen to it, but once we get to older Sam (especially with LaBelle, looking remarkably like the young director), the film digs deeper than any of his previous work, not relying on realistic special effects but honest performances by a terrific cast. Seth Rogan and Paul Dano have never been better. Judd Hirsch hijacks the film for about ten minutes and then disappears. But it's LaBelle and especially, Michelle Williams, who anchor the emotional throughline for this movie, and however you feel about Williams’ idiosyncratic take (this is how Mitzi was in real life), it’s her inner-life and struggles that shine through. Despite the clunky too-on-the-nose title/surname and a coda that feels out of place but also leaves the audience happy (with a fun celebrity cameo), “The Fabelmans” is an honest but gentle look back at Spielberg’s life, warts and all. 

The Fabelmans (c) Universal Pictures

VIP: John Williams. After essentially retiring from film composing with his ninth and final Star Wars film, “The Rise of Skywalker,” Williams had to come back for Spielberg’s most personal effort, especially since Williams knew his parents. He has essentially composed a love-letter piano concerto for Mitzi and Steven. Incorporating classical pieces as he has rarely done for a Spielberg movie, Williams’ music is intimate, introspective and wonderful. At 90 years old, this may be his final film,and it’s the perfect capper to a brilliant career of memorable scores.

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