Monday, November 28, 2022

Portrait of the Artist, Part I: The Fabelmans

Paul Dano, Mateo Zoryan and Michelle Williams in The Fabelmans.

The fallback of filmmakers who dramatize some version of their coming-of-age stories is to sentimentalize them. What goes wrong with Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, which he co-authored with his favorite writing partner, Tony Kushner, is more complicated. The story Spielberg wants to tell is a saga. It focuses on the breakdown of the family of his alter ego, Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), when his brilliant engineer father Bert (Paul Dano) relocates them from Phoenix to northern California to take a better job offer and his marriage to Mitzi (Michelle Williams) disintegrates. It also includes Sammy’s encounter with anti-Semitic jocks at his new high school. The movie goes on for two and a half hours, far longer than a movie of this kind warrants, and it feels more attenuated as it unspools. I don’t think that anyone but Spielberg could get away with this kind of self-indulgence: a growing-up story and family drama that’s also a grandiose Hollywood period piece.

What he and Kushner use as the bridge that attaches the two halves of the story – along with the prelude in New Jersey, where Sammy is born (and where Mateo Zoryan plays him) and lives before the family’s first big move – is his discovery of movies. His parents take him to see Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth when he’s six, though he’s nervous about the experience of being dwarfed by the figures on the big screen. The scene in DeMille’s epic (which, in my recollection, is pretty awful) where stranded circus cars collide with a train that can’t stop in time does jangle Sammy; he plays it over and over again in his head. But what obsesses him isn’t the horror – it’s the excitement. He gets his parents to buy him an electric train set for Chanukah but what he wants it for, Bert is dismayed to learn, is to restage the crash. It’s Mitzi who comes up with the idea of having him do it just once and film it, so he won’t damage the expensive train set. And then filmmaking becomes his passion, though pragmatic Bert keeps referring to it, to Sammy’s irritation, as merely a hobby that he keeps waiting for his son to grow past. Instead it takes over his life.

But Spielberg doesn’t just want to make a picture about an adolescent hero struggling with a pompous, didactic pop who doesn’t get the creative impulse if it isn’t linked to science while his pianist mother encourages his dream. He’s not satisfied with chronicling Sammy’s learning how to bring emotional as well as physical realism to his increasingly elaborate homegrown cinematic efforts; he also wants them to reflect the drama of Sammy’s world. When his maternal grandmother (Robin Bartlett) dies and Mitzi – fragile, moody, impulsive, possibly bi-polar – descends into depression, Bert, who loves her desperately and feels impotent to help her, begs his son to put off his latest project, a war film, and put together a collage of home movies to cheer her up. In the process Sammy discovers an undercurrent in the footage he hadn’t expected: a love story between his mother and Bert’s best friend Benny (Seth Rogen). (In a way, it’s Sammy’s Blow-Up, though it predates Antonioni’s by a few years; Sammy graduates from high school in 1964.) In northern California, he films the senior class’s Ditch Day, a sanctioned day off school at the beach, which turns his nemesis, an Aryan-looking jerk named Logan Hall (Sam Rechner), into a sort of ironic Norse hero and restores him to his ex-girlfriend while leaving him, for reasons that were never clear to me, baffled and unsettled.

None of this works very well, though the amateur filmmaking scenes in Arizona are fun, even if you don’t buy the idea that Sammy figures out how to get real emotion out of one of his buddies in the final scene of his version of a World War II action picture. The comedy, both in and out of the family, is often overly broad, but I enjoyed Jeannie Berlin as Bert’s sour, contrary mother, and after she more or less disappears from the movie Judd Hirsch, as Mitzi’s Uncle Boris, a profane wild-man veteran of both the circus and silent movies, shows up for a short spell. Spielberg and Kushner turn Boris into a candidate for the Most Unforgettable Character You’ve Ever Met; he’s too on-the-nose, but Hirsch is very funny. And though Dano’s performance might feel less strained if Spielberg had permitted him to be more of a Dickensian caricature, he has a few genuinely touching moments along the way, and so does LaBelle. The surprise is that Williams, an actress whose performances I always look forward to, doesn’t come through here: she forced, perhaps because she’s miscast. (One of the movie’s notions that didn’t make sense to me was the opinion most of the other characters seem to share that her musical career has been a disappointment, even though she gets to play solo piano on TV.) The California jocks, Rechner and Oakes Fegley (whom I liked much better in Pete’s Dragon), are standard-issue bullies, and Sammy’s romance with a Monica (Chloe East), who somehow finds both him and Jesus a turn-on, is more of a head-scratcher than the burst of comic invention it would need to be for Spielberg to pull it off. I much preferred Isabelle Kusman as Claudia, the teen beauty who walks out on Logan after Sammy catches him in a clinch with another girl and then takes him back when Sammy’s Ditch Day movie glamorizes his athletic exploits.

Some of the period stuff is amusing, especially in the first half hour, when you get to peer under fifties hairstyles and past fifties clothes to recognize well-known actors like Williams and Rogen. The finale, where Sammy, having eschewed university to take a job at CBS, gets a few minutes alone with one of his Hollywood heroes, is a miss. The legendary director is played by someone you would never have expected, but unfortunately he’s all wrong for the role. The Fabelmans is a weird mix of good calls that sometimes don’t deliver and outright bad ones.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies

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