Combustible Celluloid Review - The Fabelmans (2022), Steven Spielberg, Tony Kushner, Steven Spielberg, Gabriel LaBelle, Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Judd Hirsch, Mateo Zoryon Francis DeFord, Julia Butters, Birdie Borria, Keeley Karsten, Alina Brace, Sophia Kopera, Jeannie Berlin, Robin Bartlett, Sam Rechner, Oakes Fegley, Chloe East, Isabelle Kusman, Chandler Lovelle, Gustavo Escobar, Nicolas Cantu, Cooper Dodson, Gabriel Bateman, Stephen Smith, Lane Factor, James Urbaniak, Connor Trinneer, Greg Grunberg, David Lynch, Jan Hoag, Crystal the Monkey
Combustible Celluloid
 
With: Gabriel LaBelle, Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Judd Hirsch, Mateo Zoryon Francis DeFord, Julia Butters, Birdie Borria, Keeley Karsten, Alina Brace, Sophia Kopera, Jeannie Berlin, Robin Bartlett, Sam Rechner, Oakes Fegley, Chloe East, Isabelle Kusman, Chandler Lovelle, Gustavo Escobar, Nicolas Cantu, Cooper Dodson, Gabriel Bateman, Stephen Smith, Lane Factor, James Urbaniak, Connor Trinneer, Greg Grunberg, David Lynch, Jan Hoag, Crystal the Monkey
Written by: Steven Spielberg, Tony Kushner
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some strong language, thematic elements, brief violence and drug use
Running Time: 151
Date: 11/25/2022
IMDB

The Fabelmans (2022)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Flick Witted

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

With a career stretching out over five decades and more than thirty feature films, Steven Spielberg has found unprecedented success, while steadily improving at his craft and becoming a contender for the Greatest of Our Time. Yet his detractors have accused him of being juvenile, of catering to fantasies and skipping over grown-up issues, of favoring boy's stories (and not knowing how to handle women), and of preferring spectacle to humanity.

Whatever Spielberg was hiding from or avoiding, he has now faced fully, and embraced, with his glorious The Fabelmans. Like James Gray's recent Armageddon Time, The Fabelmans is a memory piece, a quasi-autobiography wrapped in fiction. But while Gray wrestled with the problem of memory versus nostalgia, Spielberg is more content to weave a tapestry, or rather a ballet, where memory, cinema, and life dance gracefully around one another.

It tells his own life story, though we know that because Steven Spielberg has become "Sam Fabelman," that this is a story, and not fact. It begins in 1952 as young Sam (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) goes to the movies for the first time with his parents, Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt (Paul Dano). Sam is initially frightened of the dark and the "giants" on the screen, but he is soon mesmerized by Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth.

For Hanukkah, he receives a beautiful Lionel train set. His first impulse is to re-create the train crash from the movie. His father, a brilliant technical engineer, punishes him, but his mother — an artist herself, a piano virtuoso — understands. She gets out the 8mm movie camera and suggests filming the crash so that it can be watched again and again without damaging the train.

Sam grows (Gabriel LaBelle) and shoots more homemade movies, showing a keen inventiveness in both the filmmaking process and the editing process, finding ways to make things more realistic, more cinematic, more amazing. And as much as we'd love to witness the birth of Spielberg's poetry, and the origins of his most famous creations, the camera is frequently put away so that Sam can live his life.

In any case, we meet "Uncle" Bennie (Seth Rogen), who works with Burt and is Burt's best friend. As Mitzi explains, he is able to talk more plainly about what Burt actually does so that regular folks can understand. Bennie seems to be around a lot, even going on a family camping trip with the Fabelmans. And when Sam discovers the reason why, his world is ripped out from under him.

More drama comes when the family moves to California so that Burt can accept a job at IBM. Sam and his sisters Reggie (Julia Butters) and Natalie (Keeley Karsten) wind up at a school populated by Aryan giants. There, they get their first taste of anti-semitism, although Sam does end up with his first girlfriend, Monica (Chloe East), a Christian whose room is decorated with pictures of "sexy" Jesus.

Monica encourages Sam to pick up a camera (a 16mm Arriflex this time) to film senior Ditch Day, and he uses the opportunity to process his feelings about two of his bullies: the twisted, hateful, Antisemitic Chad (Oakes Fegley) and the handsome, chiseled athlete Logan (Sam Rechner), who is less hateful, but who does nothing to discourage his friend's nasty remarks. The finished film somehow, perhaps purposely or perhaps instinctively, captures the true nature of the bullies, and hands them their just-desserts.

Things jump to a year later in Los Angeles as an exhausted Sam struggles with college, suffers panic attacks, and hunts futilely to find his first job, anything at all, even being an "assistant to the assistant" on a new TV show called Hogan's Heroes. But then Spielberg finds his most perfect ending, an astonishing meeting between the future great, and the actual GOAT, with a brilliant piece of casting that only adds more layers.

Truthfully The Fabelmans doesn't move like a traditional story. Rather, it's like snatches of moments. Each moment can lead either lead to the next logical moment, or it can jump ahead to months later. Each scene, each single shot, shows the conflict, the connection, between life and art. The artist occupies his life, but is also constantly searching for anything that is a filmable moment. Is this moment cinematic? Is there a poem here?

In one crushing moment in which his parents announce their divorce to the children, Sam is present, but Spielberg moves his camera across the living room to show a wall mirror, and in the mirror, an alternate, dream version of Sam has his camera out, and is capturing the moment on film. In another scene, Mitzi plays the piano, and the camera travels over her and the instrument, until it finally settles on a low-angle shot that perfectly frames her face reflected in the polished wood. He's forever looking for "the shot."

In a centerpiece sequence, Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch) comes for a visit. Having worked in the circus and in silent cinema, he has the same artistic temperament as Mitzi and Sam, and in a bravura piece of acting, he gives Sam a sinister warning about being so devoted to your art that you shift your family to second place. ("I want you to remember pain.")

If anyone had any doubts that Spielberg could direct a great female performance, then Michelle Williams's incredible work should remove those doubts permanently. She also suggests that, between Spielberg's parents, he perhaps felt closer and more connected with her. His real struggle was in connecting with his father, which may explain why there are so many father-son stories — and absent fathers, and father-figures — in his filmography. (The scenes between Leonardo DiCaprio and Christopher Walken in Catch Me If You Can are especially close to what we see here.)

As Americans, we tend to celebrate young artists and generally neglect the old masters as they age, criticizing them for either exploring the same themes more deeply or for trying something new. But artists that are open to life are still learning new things, and can add many new chapters to a career. Martin Scorsese proved this with his The Irishman, a masterpiece that looked back on his career of gangster pictures while adding more nuance, and more reflection. With The Fabelmans, Spielberg has arrived at a similar place. He has decided to trust us even more. He has found more courage, and perhaps more peace.

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