Steven Spielberg has largely proved two things throughout his long and storied career: that he’s both a wildly competent filmmaker and a hopelessly corny man. Many people are so seduced by the competent filmmaking that they’d push back on hopelessly corny, but consider: at age 75, when Spielberg finally got around to making his semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale, he called it “The Fabelmans,” the kind of on-the-nose pun I’d normally expect from Tyler Perry (who famously made a movie called “Good Deeds” about a lawyer named Wesley Deeds).
While only a man as hopelessly corny as Spielberg would dare to name his own origin story “The Fabelmans,” only as competent a filmmaker as Spielberg could actually make it work. And The Fabelmans is miles better than Spielberg’s last few (West Side Story, Ready Player One, The Post…). It’s at its best when it dares to be what Spielberg movies so rarely are: weird. So much of Spielberg’s corniness, I suspect, comes from a general unwillingness to give us much of himself in his movies, his true esoteric, idiosyncratic personality. His inner self is almost always filtered through a bestselling book, a fantastic narrative, or the eyes of a beautiful shiny horse. It’s why he’s waited until the age of 75 to make the self-referential movie that directors nowadays often make as one of their first.
Spielberg is married, maybe more than any filmmaker ever, to this idea of himself as the ultimate pop filmmaker — accessible, commercial, universal — a guy who makes broad fables. A “fable man,” if you will. That’s why, despite the general corniness and some of the baffling artistic decisions that have increasingly characterized his work, the moments of The Fabelmans when Spielberg seems to let his guard down, to let his genuine, unfocus-grouped self peak through, are genuinely thrilling.
Spielberg has taken on Jewish-themed projects before — Schindler’s List, Munich — but never before has he addressed what it was like growing up Jewish in America. He offers a few telling, tantalizing details in The Fabelmans, but something suggests that he’s not quite ready to be all-the-way vulnerable. Possibly reflected in the fact that he hired two of the most goyish-looking actors alive, Paul Dano and Michelle Williams, to play his parents.
The film begins in the 1950s, with Williams wearing a godawful, 6-year-old’s Cleopatra bob and Spielberg’s stand-in, Sammy Fabelman, played by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord (feels like way too many names for one person, but sure). The scene is young Sammy’s first movie, about which he’s weirdly terrified. His father, Burt (Dano), tries to calm him by explaining the science behind movies. That a series of still images projected quickly creates the illusion of motion, thanks to persistence of vision. A “motion picture,” if you will. As Sammy’s mom says later in the film, “In this house, it’s the artists vs. the scientists, and Sammy is on my team.”
Sammy, naturally, quickly becomes obsessed with making movies. Specifically, with recreating the train crash scene from Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, which is how mama Mitzi knows Sammy is on Team Art. Mitzi is an accomplished piano player, who has mostly put her art on the back burner in order to become a traditional housewife to Burt. Burt is an electrical engineer who seems on the cusp of developing new technology for use in computers, and when he gets a fancy new job which will move the family from New Jersey to Arizona, Mitzi initially has to exhort him to get Bennie hired along with him. Bennie, played by Seth Rogen, is Burt’s best friend/business partner/employee, who seems capable of both translating Burt’s genius to the outside world and playing along with Mitzi’s artistic sensibilities.
Paul Dano, who at 38, is younger than both Williams and Rogen, and with his pudgy baby face looks even younger than that, is the first of The Fabelmans‘ strange casting decisions. The second comes after a 10-year time jump, when high school-aged Sammy is now played by Gabriel LaBelle. LaBelle, unlike the cerulean-eyed Francis-DeFord, has brown eyes in real life, and to square this circle, Spielberg fits LaBelle with blue contact lenses that look about as fake as all colored contact lenses do. They’re especially distracting in the origin story for Steven Spielberg, the man who popularized the “Spielberg Face” shot, a closeup of a character gazing off in wonder. It’s a shot that focuses special attention on the eyes and Spielberg reuses it countless times here.
LaBelle is a capable actor, so it’s easy to understand why Spielberg wanted to cast him, but if that was the priority, why not hire a younger Sammy with brown eyes? Was eye color really so integral to Spielberg’s conception of himself? Or why not leave LaBelle’s eyes alone and force us to suspend disbelief? We’ve already accepted Michelle Williams’ offputting haircut (which gradually evolves into a less harsh-looking pageboy over the course of the film), what’s an eye-color disparity? The constant closeups of bad contact lenses force us to relive this weird decision over and over.
Sammy faces Anti-Semitism at a new school, he escapes into filmmaking, Mitzi eventually chafes against having to sublimate her artistic self to fit her position as housewife — these are all fairly predictable storylines in The Fabelmans. They’re the parts you expect to be in the trailer, and are. The parts of The Fabelmans that are the most interesting are the parts where it feels like Spielberg is doing honest reflection rather than revisionist myth-making (I’ve never entirely trusted anyone who claims to have known exactly what they wanted to do with their life from the age of 10 onwards).
In one of the best scenes, Judd Hirsch arrives at the Fabelman house, playing Sammy’s showbiz great uncle. Uncle Boris is an old Hollywood guy, a vagabond and something of a pirate. Seeing himself in the boy, Boris harangues about how “art” and “family” are always going to be opposing forces in the boy’s life. “It’ll tear you apart!” Hirsch bellows, affixing the boy in his unibrowed stare.
The scene is easily the film’s best because it’s the first inkling that Spielberg’s eventual life as an artist was an actual decision. Not only that, that it was actually a tough one, and not something pre-ordained by fate that turned out just fine.
On the flipside, the most memorable part of Sammy’s high school days aren’t him discovering film or getting bullied for being Jewish, it’s when he gets to make out with a hot classmate because she has a Jesus fetish. Images of the savior mingle with bubblegum shots of pop idols on the wall in the bedroom of Monica (Chloe East), who invites Sammy over to her house to convert him, then tries to transmit the holy spirit through her tongue. Sammy getting a bagel in his locker as a taunt is something we’ve more or less seen, but young Spielberg’s perspective on churchy shiksas being both alluring and deranged, which he, being a clever boy, naturally capitlizes on, is fresh and funny. It also feels like something Spielberg is trying to work through for himself, rather than just telling us what he thinks we want to hear.
Ever the canny salesman, The Fabelmans is mostly a clever mix of things the audience has seen and expects, with enough new to tantalize without scaring anyone off. It’s nice to see Spielberg finally giving us a bit of himself, even if it could be more.