THE FABELMANS– 4 STARS
LESSON #1: LEGENDS HAVE HUMBLE ORIGINS– Extending its fervent love of filmmaking, The Fabelmans begs the question of how magicians find their magic. It assuredly posits that the answer will be a humble origin born from the nuclear home, especially for the most commercially successful movie director of all-time. Through this very personal film, director Steven Spielberg puts his pants on one leg at a time like everyone else to show how one legendary magician remembers and treasures their own story. Since it is Spielberg after all, permission was granted to go ahead and tell that tale with a little magic of its own.
The soon-to-be-76-year-old man fondly remembers the date of his theatrical birth and opens The Fabelmans with that first core memory. On January 10, 1952, one brilliant and over-explaining scientist father Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano of The Batman) and his imaginative and bohemian wife Mitzi ( four-time Oscar nominee Michelle Williams) have ventured to the city to accompany their son Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) to a packed house opening weekend showing of Cecil B. DeMille’s eventual Best Picture winner The Greatest Show on Earth. Like many youngsters before and after him, Sammy rides, sometimes to his parents’ chagrin, the full emotional wringer watching his first big screen movie.
LESSON #2: CAMERAS CREATE FANTASY— Seeing The Greatest Show on Earth scared and sparked young Sammy. In an effort to repeat the thrilling euphoria of DeMille’s climactic trainwreck, the boy begins to borrow his father’s 8mm camera to DIY stage and recreate movie scenes with his eager sisters. Encouraged by his mother and screening his creations on the darkly enclosed wall of a walk-in closet, Sam’s hobby of fantasy fulfillment brings joy to himself and others. And we all know how that turned out…
Aging to become a high school teen relocated to Arizona and played by the fresh-faced Canadian Gabriel LaBelle of Showtime’s American Gigolo series, Sam has evolved his self-taught skill set into a creative obsession that earns him Boy Scout merit badges and a loyal group of bike-riding friends. While Burt downplays the practicality of this hobby. He favors a career involving “something someone can actually use” like his own work in the field of computers and that of his ever-present best friend and co-worker Bennie (Seth Rogen). Nonetheless, Sam remains the apple of his mother’s eye. His burgeoning passion fills the lack of magic in Mitzi’s life.
LESSON #3: CAMERAS CAPTURE THE REAL YOU– Burt’s opposition pushes Sam to extend further than fictional creations in an effort to find more tangible expressions. When what would be his dilly-dallying camera is turned to capture his family’s private life at home as well as their domestic ventures out and about, Sam finds a double-edged sword of inspiration that is, again, centered on his mother. Unscripted authenticity shows the real person, both the affirming possible beauty present and the shameful flawed truths that others would not see if a camera was not recording.
LESSON #4: ART IN YOUR HEART– The still-maturing Sam cannot quite grasp his conflicted actions and thoughts on the matter. It takes an unexpected visit from his great uncle Bruno (Judd Hirsch, in a dynamite sequence), a former silent actor and circus member, to rattle his mind with this lesson’s title. He sees the kid’s talent and junkie love for what grants “crowns in heaven” and “laurels on earth.” Bruno emphatically warns Sam that family and art will tear a man in two. It is a very dramatic and accurate mission statement, and one that would stick with Sam as he nears the tipping point of independent adulthood.
Right before Sam’s senior year in 1964, Burt uproots the family from Arizona to northern California for a lucrative promotion with IBM. This change crushes their marriage to the point of divorce. The impetus of the move jades Sam to quit filmmaking as well. All the while, Sam enters a lion’s den of schoolyard anti-semitism perpetrated by varsity jock Logan (newcomer Sam Rechner) and his hot-headed underling Chad (Oakes Fegley of Wonderstruck). Two oases bring ease, a Christian quack girlfriend named Monica (The Wolf of Snow Hollow’s Chloe East) and the chance to get a camera back in his hands.
Because this is a Steven Spielberg film, no gear is misaligned, no surface is unpolished, and no millisecond is bereft of refined production value. Steven’s usual troupe of decorated collaborators, from cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and composer John Williams to editor Michael Kahn and production designer Rick Carter, offer steady and superb submissions of their department’s craft components. One standout element, the period-perfect costumes of two-time Oscar winner Mark Bridges (Phantom Thread, The Artist), comes from a Spielberg first-timer. Eye-catching prettiness was never in doubt.
Beyond the magic of making movies, The Fabelmans is a tribute to stalwart parenting lifted by a very good central performance from Gabriel LaBelle, a previously untested lead, as the output of that effort. The inner concert pianist talent of Mitzi and the electrical engineer pragmatism of Burt match Spielberg’s own parents, Leah and Arnold. Matching Lesson #4, both of those divergent directions of upbringing would shape LaBelle’s central character and the man he would become with his eye stuck in a lens. The film is lovingly and respectfully dedicated in their honor.
True to the shared mistakes that come with divorce, Paul Dano is never the outright “bad” parent in The Fabelmans. Burt’s intellectual spine is always aware of his own hubris and the damage it can and will cause for a secure and successful lifestyle for his family. Dano portrays that in a delicate and fitting manner. Even more fragile are the gamut of eccentricities embodied by Michelle Williams, an absolute specialist at this point of her career in willowy sadness. With a tint of lament, the glow of hero worship towards her in the film sheds light on personal difficulties besetting the matriarch. Williams never falters in a performance of bracing honesty.
The concluding sequence of The Fabelmans becomes the closest wink at the camera we get from Spielberg and a fitting one. While landing his first production job on Hogan’s Heroes, Sam has just met one of his film director heroes working across the hall. To guard a delightful surprise for the cinephiles out there, this review will refrain from saying who that historical figure is and, even better, who’s playing him. In any case, the blunt rookie advice Sam receives is that horizons on the bottom or top of the frame are always more interesting than one straight-on.
LESSON #5: OFF-CENTER IS INTERESTING–The Fabelmans is forever true to that form. Little was ever straightforward in this story of familial highs and lows. Such is life. Like anyone with or without a camera, Spielberg chose his vantage points to either look down upon or look up toward formative memories. Those choices declare the favorable or the lamented reverence of those moments.
In the last shot of The Fabelmans, Kaminski’s smooth camera follows Sam, still buzzing from the director meeting, walking down a studio lot– one he will likely run someday. The two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer begins to frame the exit straight-on only to sloppily (and intentionally) jerk the camera up to put that necessary horizon on the bottom and the character’s future up high with the sunny skies. The correction is the composure-cracking and winking reminder that even the master still catches himself firmly adhering to the advice of always presenting slanted engrossment.
It will take a side-by-side comparison with this screenplay from Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner (his fifth collaboration with Spielberg) and an authorized biography (if one even exists) to determine the cloudiness as to what are really Steven’s experiences and what are embellishments and additions for dramatic effect in The Fabelmans. For better or worse, exponential whimsy bleeds from every corner. Hard topics are massaged and softened almost as soon as they momentarily bludgeon our characters’ dreamy existences. Through it all, feelings stay prudent and comfortable. The tagline on the poster of The Fabelmans commands to “capture every moment” just as the Spielberg proxy does. The more apt result would be a film lulling you into appreciation.