The Fabelmans


Box Office $17.12 million;
$19.98 DVD, $24.98 Blu-ray, $34.98 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for some strong language, thematic elements, brief violence and drug use.  
Stars Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Gabriel LaBelle, Seth Rogen, Judd Hirsch, Jeannie Berlin.

It can be argued that a surefire formula for a director making it into the Pantheon is a continued commitment to perpetual growth through experimentation, reenvisioning life as seen through a lens, and transforming even the most mundane studio assignment into a demanding journey to the heart of cinema. Rather than following in the footsteps of such prolific filmmakers as Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen, after a self-imposed 3-year hiatus Steven Spielberg returned to multiplexes with West Side Story, as unnecessary a remake as anything this side of Gus Van Sant’s Psycho. Next up, the second installment in the “I’ve Run Out of Things to Say” trilogy: the personal narrative, which, for many a green director, provides an ideal jumping off point. Once upon a time there was a colleague who assured me that no matter my level of dislike, there was at least one positive thing to be found in every picture. I promise you dear reader, that in the end, I will have found something praiseworthy to say of The Fabelmans.

George Lucas and Spielberg swapped intergalactic box office hits before teaming on Raiders of the Lost Ark, the structure of which had more climaxes than a James Deen compilation. It was Raiders that started me on the rocky path to Spielbergia. And so it went: the director, who has never revealed a pronounced allergy to fudging, couldn’t get E.T. to phone home, yet the little feller managed to pilot a full-grown boy, on a bicycle, past the moon for the film’s money shot. Then there’s the director as historian. Remember the 24-sheet ballyhooing Gone With the Wind on display in Empire of the Sun? Do you think Jean-Luc Godard or Martin Scorsese would have been careless enough to use 1968 reissue artwork in a film set in the 1940s? In Schindler’s List, or as a friend took to calling it, Oskar Schindler and the Temple of Doom, the only way Spielberg could get a character to stand out in a black-and-white film was through colorized attire. And given the film’s lumbering pace and “Hall of Presidents” anamorphic tableaus, if Abraham Lincoln was as dull as the biopic, could you really blame the South for seceding from the Union? The only Spielberg film I found myself returning to is 1941, and then more for A.D. Flowers’ special effects and cinematographer William Fraker’s sublime nightwork.

Meet The Fabelmans. Little Sammy Fabelman’s (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord as a youth and Gabriel LaBelle in his teens) introduction to the movies arrives in the form of a cuddly meet-cute. The future Cecil B. De Mille stands trembling in line with mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and dad Burt (Paul Dano) to see the greatest showman on film’s Oscar-winning circus picture, The Greatest Show on Earth. Anticipatory anxiety rode high when Sammy confessed to being overcome with fear, terrified that sitting in a dark room filled with strangers could be too much for him. Brainiac Burt talks the tyke down by bringing him up to speed on the merits of visual perception and persistence of vision. Burt Fabelman is a decent man, an upright figure endowed with the kind of moral turpitude that would make Ward Cleaver look like Alex Murdaugh. Spielberg came up with the story decades ago but couldn’t bring himself to directing a film he feared might hurt his parents.

Spielberg used the first camera his folks bought him to trace De Mille’s spectacular trainwreck. This was soon followed by Escape to Nowhere, a 40-minute war film he directed at age 13 with a cast composed of high school cronies. He completed the film in 1959, three years before the release of How the West Was Won, yet a piece of Alfred Newman’s score is heard as background accompaniment. As a historian, Spielberg was a terrific popcorn salesman.

Burt is by all accounts a genial genius who adored his work almost as much as he did his family. In the mid-fifties, Burt becomes a valued member of General Electric’s computer department. The work called for considerable relocation; it was his job that gradually brings the Fabelmans to California. Mitzi is a concert pianist who grows cold living life in her husband’s shadow. Mitzi eventually takes up with Burt’s best friend Bennie Lowey (Seth Rogan). When the Fabelmans divorce in 1965, Sammy goes to live with his father. Mitzi and Bennie eventually wed, but one can’t help but think Sammy had a hand in the breakup going public. There’s something uber creepy about Sammy and Mitzi’s relationship. Spielberg told 60 Minutes that Leah Spielberg was like an older sister. Even though mom was the one caught cheating, Spielberg blamed his father for the break-up. “I kind of put her up on a pedestal,” Spielberg continued. “And my dad was much more terrestrial, much more grounded, much more salt of the earth. And for some reason, it was easier for me to blame him than it was to someone who I had already exalted.”

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While on a family camping trip, Mitzi, who has a few too many, dances seductively, her see-through negligee back-lit by a car’s headlights. Rather than aborting the shot, a turned-on Sammy keeps the camera rolling. This isn’t the only time his lens spied something it shouldn’t have. The next day, he surreptitiously captures footage of the cuckolders openly cavorting in deep focus behind his father and sisters. Acting as though nothing happened, it isn’t until the footage comes back from the lab that Sammy is overcome with shock. How could he not have noticed the kiss while filming? Hell, he panned up to it! It was Kurt Vonnegut who once said, “Nothing’s real to some people unless they’ve got photographs.” In Sammy’s case, truth comes to light only when projected. He ultimately blames himself for filming it in the first place.

Scenes of anti-semtism are as clumsily addressed as they are inevitable. The first confrontation takes place after a high school volleyball match. The dialogue and situations are such, one keeps waiting for Beaver Cleaver to enter and say, “Gee, Wally. Eddie Haskell called us ‘kikes.’” Once again, Sammy blames Burt; the family never might have crossed paths with anti-semites had his father not moved the family from Arizona. A subsequent relationship with Monica Sherwood (Chloe East), a sugary, hot-to-trot gentile classmate looking to make it with a handsome Jewish boy (just like Jesus) has nothing on Screech and Lisa Turtle.

Jeannie Berlin and Judd Hirsh pop up in a couple of memorable cameos, but the film’s biggest laugh arrives when Sammy’s sister asks when he’s going to make a film with girls. Judging by Spielberg’s track record, the answer is never. And as advertised, here’s the positive note I promised to close on. It can be summed up in five words: David Lynch as John Ford.

Bonus features include a trio of fawning behind-the-scenes featurettes.

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