Review: The Fabelmans

It’s interesting to ponder what kind of film Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical The Fabelmans would have been had he made it earlier in his life. Film critics have broadly divided his output between two schools, the entertainments and the nominally serious movies, and I would assume that had Spielberg made The Fabelmans 20 years ago he would have approached it as a serious topic, since it takes into consideration such “adult” themes as connubial satisfaction, racism, and the pursuit of artistic vision. Well into his 70s, however, the director has subjected his story to an inventive scrutiny that transcends its various themes, making it by far his most entertaining work in years. The “seriousness,” if that’s what you want to call it, is all in what you take away from it.

Told through a script by Spielberg and frequent collaborator Tony Kushner, the movie’s story is strictly linear without any tricky sidelines or flashbacks or flash-forwards. Spielberg’s stand-in, Sam Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord), is first turned on to the magic of movies while watching The Greatest Show on Earth in Cinerama, paying particularly close attention to the famous train crash sequence, which would inform so much of his visual attitude. Though the scene is meant to instill horror, Sam is filled with awe and the instatiable drive of the autodidact to recreate it, an urge encouraged by his mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), a discouraged concert pianist. His engineer father, Burt (Paul Dano), gets into the spirit of things by buying Sam a model train set. Thus the two poles of the Spielberg creative mentality—the poetic and the technical—are established.

As Sam grows older (and is subsequently played by Gabriel LaBelle) his obsession with Super 8 filmmaking only intensifies while his home life gradually erodes. The family moves from New Jersey to Arizona in the early 60s when Burt leaves IBM to take more lucrative and challenging work. The move involves not only the Fabelman family, but Burt’s best friend, Bennie (Seth Rogen), who also has an uncomfortably close relationship with Mitzi, whose insecurities become more acute after she settles in the Southwest. The script does an admirable job of informing Sam’s artistic development with the traumatic aspects of his living arrangement, and as his parents’ marriage slowly unravels and his father becomes less tolerant of his “hobby,” the movie’s serious side comes into its own without making a big deal of it. It is when the family moves again, to Northern California, that the various dramatic lines converge in a stunningly executed sequence wherein Sam reacts to his high school’s overt anti-semitism with a piece of personal filmmaking that captures all of the boy’s conflicting feelings about the life’s path he’s chosen and the material world—with all its prejudices and injustices— he has to navigate to walk that path. It’s the perfect depiction of how Spielberg’s first impulse as an artist is to please an audience. 

But even beyond the writing itself and the usual Spielberg visual magic, it’s the characters that make The Fabelmans the ultimate autobiographical film study. For once, the period setting is honored to a T: there’s no accidental verbal anachronisms (or, at least, none that I caught—and I’m pretty sensitive to films set in the 60s) or strange intrusions of a post-millennial sensibility. Dano and Williams are so vivid as to be heartbreaking in their characters’ lack of compatibility, but two smaller parts really stand out: Judd Hirsch as Sam’s Uncle Boris, whose soliloquy about his stint as a lion tamer is the spot performance of the year; and David Lynch’s cameo comic turn as John Ford, who gives young Sam the kind of advice only Ford could. Everything else is history.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

The Fabelmans home page in Japanese

photo (c) Storyteller Distribution Co., LLC

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