Review: The Fabelmans — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

The Fabelmans is without question a bona fide Spielbergian crowd pleaser from its sentimental opening to its fabulously funny blackout.

Courtesy TIFF/Universal

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The Fabelmans

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️ ⭐️

Rating: PG-13

Run Time: 2 hours 31 minutes

Stars: Michelle Williams, Gabriel LaBelle, Paul Dano, Judd Hirsch, Seth Rogen

Writers: Steven Spielberg, Tony Kushner

Director: Steven Spielberg

Reviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival


Well, I guess I have a new favorite Steven Spielberg movie.

Bravely autobiographical — focusing on the dramas, large and small, that confronted the young, uncomfortably creative Spielberg growing up Jewish in 1960s U.S. suburbia — The Fabelmans finds the director wandering far from his accustomed blockbuster zone.

That said, as a love letter to family and film — punctuated by four impeccably sustained performances plus two cannon-blast cameos — The Fabelmans is without question a bona fide Spielbergian crowd pleaser from its sentimental opening to its fabulously funny blackout.

When we first meet Sammy Fabelman he is just a little kid standing outside a New Jersey movie theater. His parents (Paul Dano and Michelle Williams) are desperately trying to cajole him into stepping inside for a screening of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. But Sammy is the nervous type, and he’s afraid of what terrors lurk in the darkness.

What awaits him — shown in its entirety here — is DeMille’s spectacular train wreck scene; the one where a speeding circus locomotive plows first into a convertible sedan on the tracks, then into the train up ahead. Sammy is momentarily traumatized by the carnage, but soon, much to his parents’ surprise, he wants a Lionel train for Hanukkah. And what does he do with it? To Mom and Dad’s distress, almost immediately he’s staging miniature crashes of his own — and filming them with his father’s 8 millimeter Kodak Brownie movie camera.

And that, gentle reader, is how Spielberg/Sammy was inspired to make movies: from the start, as a method of dealing with his fears. The trauma of parental divorce? Watch E.T. The terrifying possibilities of the unknown? Close Encounters of the Third Kind, naturally. Persistent childhood antisemitism? Schindler’s List, of course.

So The Fabelmans is, in a very real sense, the Steven Spielberg superhero origin story.

In the early going, little Sammy — played by young, impossibly blue-eyed Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord — lives in that kid-centric world where the family is the universe, and whatever happens at home must be totally normal. But then we meet teenager Sammy — played with disarming ease by Gabriel LaBelle (from TV’s American Gigolo) — and the real angst begins to set in.

Dad, an early-adopting computer genius whose unshared visions of a digital future keep him adrift in middle management, wants Sammy to give up this movie nonsense and focus on an engineering career. Mom, a frustrated concert pianist, is increasingly stifled by the limitations put on women in post-Eisenhower America. And then there’s jovial, ever-present Uncle Benny (Seth Rogen), ostensibly Dad’s best friend, but strangely close to Sammy’s mother.

Those four make up the core of The Fabelmans, each actor playing off the others in convincingly unique ways. The three grownup stars constantly recalibrate the complicated flow of emotions in their Jules and Jim-like dynamic while pouring affection on Sammy and his three sisters. And as the increasingly agitated Sammy — coping with his mom’s erratic behavior, Jew-hating bullies at school, his father’s gentle disapproval, and a Christian classmate who keeps trying to convert him — young LaBelle does a masterful job keeping all those emotional balls in the air.

Almost inevitably, a meandering memory piece like The Fabelmans is going to rely on set pieces to keep things moving along, and two of the best are provided by actors who parachute in to the proceedings, say their piece, and then abruptly exit. As Sammy’s great-uncle Boris, Judd Hirsch literally arrives in a taxi, growls and barks into Sammy’s ear about the crushing heartbreak that accompanies a life in art, then jumps into another taxi and leaves. He’s onscreen for something like 10 minutes, but Hirsch, operating at full bombast, grabs the movie by the throat and refuses to let go. It’s a wonderful vignette, setting the tone for everything that’s to come.

And then there’s Sammy’s encounter with the great film director John Ford, played with gravel-voice bravura by film director David Lynch (Twin Peaks). How Sammy finds himself in Ford’s movie studio office is one of the film’s many shaggy dog detours, but the brief visit puts an exclamation point on the proceedings, leading to one of the most tickling final shots of Spielberg’s career — and that includes the cavernous warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark and the disappearing space ship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

To say The Fabelmans is a heart-warming film is to undersell it. You’ll feel warm all over, and those fuzzies will stay with you for a good long time.

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