“Life! It’ll tear you in two.” That’s the message Uncle Boris gives to young Sammy Fabelman after the death of the boy’s grandmother sends his mother Mitzi spiraling down a hole of depression in Steven Spielberg’s latest film “The Fabelmans.”
Ain’t it the truth.
The film is a semi-autobiographical drama loosely based on bits of Spielberg’s childhood, adolescence, and the very early portion of his directing career. The screenplay, co-written by Spielberg and his longtime writing and producing partner Tony Kushner, is congenial but also laced with a darkness and sadness that many families feel when divorce is the inevitable outcome of two parents being tugged in different directions.
**** Warning: Spoilers Ahead ****
On the outside, the Fabelmans appear to be a model, upwardly mobile Jewish family, but issues such as ambition and mental illness are pulling the family apart. Young Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) and his sisters see through the veneer their parents Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt (Paul Dano) present, but they still long for a normality that rarely is present in any family dynamic.
Burt is a brilliant computer engineer who loves his wife and family, only a little less than his high-tech job where he finds the fulfillment his marriage lacks. Mitzi, who is likely bi-polar, loves her kids and Burt, too, but just a little bit less than she does friend-of-the-family Bennie (Seth Rogan), a prote’ge’ of Burt’s, who lights up her life. Burt is oblivious or pretends to be as Sammy and his sisters attempt to cope.
Sammy has a love in his life, too. It’s filmmaking. He has the need to make motion pictures that’s first noticed by Mitzi when as young boy he uses a toy train he received for Hanukkah to re-stage a train-crash sequence he saw in the movie “The Greatest Show on Earth” and then commits it to film on his dad’s camera. Burt sees his son’s filmmaking as a hobby, but it’s clear to everyone else that Sammy is a gifted filmmaker even as a teen.
Uncle Boris (Jud Hirsch) is eccentric, but he notices the artistic bent in Sammy that he and his sister Mitzi, a gifted pianist, both have that Sammy’s dad and sisters just don’t understand.
Sammy discovers Mitzi’s affection for Bennie while editing film he shot of the family’s camping vacation. He splices together a select reel of moments between she and Bennie to show her, thus letting her know that the cat is out of the bag. Sammy gives up filmmaking for a time until an opportunity at school to film “Senior Skip Day” draws him back into his first love for good.
The movie’s subject matter is heart-wrenching as a seemingly loving family disintegrates before our eyes, yet in a somewhat stoic, nonemotional way, at least for the parents. It’s hard to dislike any of the characters, even Bennie. They are all following their hearts, just as Sammy ultimately does when he returns to filmmaking.
A sub-plot shows Sammy using his talent as a filmmaker to rise above struggles with anti-Semitism and a couple of boys from his school in a classic set of sequences. It also details how his Jewish ethnicity is hilariously key in winning the interest of his oh-so-Christian high-school girlfriend, played delightfully by Chloe East.
The film ends with Sammy having an daunting but uplifting encounter with legendary director John Ford (David Lynch) at Warner Bros. Studios that is a hoot.
It goes without saying that Spielberg is a master storyteller, and it’s to his credit to that the dark subject matter of the movie doesn’t squeeze the warmth, humor, and even whimsy out of the film.
Certainly, the Fabelmans’ marriage dissolves, and the picture depicts good people dealing with hard times, but to Spielberg’s credit, his picture does not wallow in the hard times alone. The film is balanced. “The Fabelmans” depicts the happiness, joy, and fun the family enjoyed, too. That makes the result of Mitzi’s choice to be with Bennie all the more disheartening when it occurs.
The film is bolstered by strong but not showy performances throughout. Williams is a shoo-in for a Best Actress nod as Mitzi. She absolutely glows in her manic phases, which makes her down times even more troubling. Dano nails his role. The part is probably too low key to garner Oscar consideration, but it’s his character’s blandness that allows Williams to shine.
The entire movie rests on LaBelle’s performance, and its easy to buy him as a young Spielberg-type. His performance has the depth, warmth, intensity, and charm to tie the film up in a very tight package. Hirsch’s role is relatively small, yet pivotal. He could earn a best supporting nomination as well.
Though the movie is sad, it has an undercurrent of resiliency that makes it irresistible. All lives have hardships, but finding the good moments with family and friends truly is what makes like worth the struggle.
While there are other promising films on the horizon, “The Fabelmans” would be my pick for best movie of the year at this moment.
Classic Corner – Top 10 Favorite Spielberg Films
Steven Spielberg is not my favorite director. That vacillates between John Ford and Frank Capra, but he certainly would be a candidate for third if I kept such a list.
Despite the fact he’s not my favorite director, it certainly could be argued that Spielberg is the dominant director of my lifetime — 55 years and thankfully counting.
The other prime candidate would be Martin Scorsese, whose harder edge meant his films aren’t for all ages unlike much of Spielberg’s canon, and thus not as financially lucrative.
Box-office draw isn’t an artful way to consider the merits of a filmmaker, but in this age of super-hero dominance of the multiplexes, Spielberg has no problem getting his films financed no matter the subject, while Scorsese does. The reason why is that Spielberg’s films have proven to be bankable over the long haul, while Scorsese’s oeuvre have been more hit and miss in terms of box office.
That doesn’t make Spielberg a better director than Scorsese, but it does make him less grumpy and his projects more viable for financing.
Spielberg’s latest film “The Fabelmans” would be a passion project for most directors that likely would not see the light of day. It’s a semi-autobiographical family drama based on Spielberg’s adolescence that deals greatly with his passion for film-making. It’s a wonderful movie. In salute to it and Spielberg’s career, here’s my 10 favorite Spielberg films prior to “The Fabelmans.”
I don’t label it “best” because our views on movies are highly subjective and personal. My choice of favorites are no more or less valid than yours. Also, if I wrote this piece on another day, I’m pretty sure the rankings would change in order if not content.
So for today:
10. Minority Report — This 2002 sci-fi action thriller is based on a short-story by Phillip K. Dick, and its subject matter is just as pertinent today as when Dick wrote the story in 1956 and when Spielberg and Tom Cruise combined their talent on the film in 2002 if not more so. In the film, psychics are able to predict crimes so “thought police” can arrest potential criminals before they ever commit the crimes. Intent equals action in this world. But what happens when a top-level thought cop (Cruise) is unjustly accused? This is not a conventional Spielberg flick. It keeps you guessing and questioning and that’s a huge part of the fun.
9. Munich — This 2005 spy drama is perhaps the hardest-edged movie Spielberg has made. It has none of the usual trappings of a “Spielberg movie,” telling the story of the Israeli retaliation against the PLO after the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics. Gripping and tension-filled the movie asks tough questions and gives hard answers to a horrific situation.
8. The Color Purple — To many “The Color Purple” (1985) doesn’t hold up well. It’s questioned whether a white man should be the one to tell the story of a black woman who suffered so much because of her race and gender. As a white male, I might not be qualified to answer those questions, but what I know is that Spielberg crafted a powerful film with outstanding performances by Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey. It’s a tough watch, but ultimately a rewarding one.
7. Saving Private Ryan — This 1998 film is an ode to the war movies Spielberg and his star Tom Hanks grew up on, but the horror of war is on display in the film, particularly the D-Day landing that opens the movie. It’s a stunning, almost a visceral display. There is no way a film can duplicate the reality of war even in the slightest, but with “Saving Private Ryan,” Spielberg may have come as close to communicating that horror on film as possible.
6. Jurassic Park — With this 1993 masterpiece of special effects and wonder, Spielberg came as close as any director to bringing a thrill ride into the theater with his adaptation of the Michael Crichton novel. The computer-generated-imagery effects were relatively new at the time, but almost three decades later, few films match their veracity. The cautionary tale stands as a classic that has generated a franchise that still packs in movie-goers as recently as last summer.
5. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade — This 1989 film is pure fun featuring Harrison Ford in the part he was born to play. There’s not anything I don’t love about this film that offers us our first peek at the origins of Indiana Jones as well as what was intended to be his final big-screen adventure at the time of its release. The addition of Sean Connery as Indy’s dad was inspired casting. He and Ford’s chemistry is perfect as a father and son who love one another, but just rub each other the wrong way.
4. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial — As a child of divorce, Spielberg no doubt exorcised some demons in this 1982 film that told the story of siblings struggling with the reality of their parents splitting up, as well as the unreal possibility of a weird but lovable space man being stranded away from his family on Earth. The movie has fantastic special effects for the day, but the true magic is in the emotional weight of the special friendship between young Elliott and E.T. Like the best of friends, they offer the other the exact emotional support needed at a critical point in their lives. The John Williams score is magical and perfect.
3. Schindler’s List — This Best Picture-winning 1993 film is stunningly sad, and heart-wrenching, depicting German industrialist Oskar Schindler’s (Lian Neeson) efforts to save more than a thousand Polish-Jewish refugees from Aldolf Hitler’s Nazi death camps by employing them in his factories during World War II. The movie won seven Oscars, and the American Film Institute ranked it eighth on its list of the 100 Best American Films.
2. Raiders of the Lost Ark — Like “Star Wars” before it, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was inspired by the cheap Saturday morning serials kids of the 1930s, ‘40s, and early ‘50s doted on in theaters. The proliferation of television in the early 1950s gave rise to the TV series and ultimately killed off the cheap sci-fi and adventure programers made primarily for kids. That is until George Lucas and Steven Spielberg revived the form with high-caliber storytelling and high-dollar, money-making versions. For me, “Raiders” is nearly a perfect movie. Just so fun, so thrilling from beginning to end, and Ford is perfectly cast as the adventure-seeking scholar who has the wits and wherewithal to thrive in nearly any circumstance. Nothing against Tom Selleck, who was originally cast as Indy, but Spielberg and Lucas were extremely fortunate the job fell to Ford. He was the perfect choice.
1. Jaws — I saw “Jaws” in the theater with my brother and soon-to-be sister-in-law when I was 7 on Memorial Day in 1975, and I don’t think I’ve ever been more scared or thrilled in my life. Being a dumb, naive, and highly imaginative kid, I don’t think I took a bath for a week after seeing the movie for the obvious reason. The film was as scary for what you did see, but even more for what you did not. The tension Spielberg created on film is palpable. The movie is suspenseful, harrowing, and dynamic in a way no unlike any movie I’ve seen. There is a great documentary about the making of “Jaws” on Blu-Ray, DVD, and possibly YouTube that details just how troubled the shoot was and how resourceful Spielberg and his crew had to be just to get the film shot. Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw make for a rag-tag triumvirate of shark hunters. Shaw’s scene in which he describes his character’s survival of a shark attack after the sinking of the USS Indianapolis is a stunning piece of work by the actor and director. It ranks among my all time favorite scenes in all of filmdom, and “Jaws” is among my top four or five favorite movies of all time.