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The Fabelmans

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Sammy realizes his film about the Boy Scouts, “Perversion Files,” may jeopardize his merit badge for photography.

Synopsis: Preternaturally gifted kid grows up to become famous director Steven Spielberg. (Streaming on Amazon as of January 2023.)

The Fabelmans is, essentially, the Spielbergs. If you are reading this now, you are no doubt aware of Steven Spielberg, the most famous film director in history. If this is news to you, Welcome to the plugged-in parts of Planet Earth.

Spielberg burst on the scene as a twenty-something with the blockbuster Jaws (1975), about a killer shark which stalked swimmers, while some might say that Spielberg’s first notable work was the made-for-tv movie Duel (1971).  The latter featured a killer truck which tailgated motorists. In both cases the spindly humans were seemingly no match for either the ginormous razor-toothed great white, or the massive eighteen-wheeler that targeted drivers of little sedans. But, even then, Spielberg had a knack for making movies about underdogs who could go the distance.

The number of critical and commercial successes that followed is head spinning, including: Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET, Empire of the Sun, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich, Lincoln and West Side Story.

This time around the septuagenarian is examining his own life, focusing on his formative years. The Fabelmans explores not only his beginnings as a film maker, but also his life as part of a Jewish family. I think that Spielberg first toyed with the latter when he produced the animated film, An American Tail (1986) in which Fievel Mousekewitz, an Ashkenazi Jewish juvenile mouse must flee to America by ship. Fievel’s shtetl in Russia had been set upon by a pogrom of cats.

The great human director’s family also has roots in Eastern Europe: the Spielbergs immigrated from the Ukraine, and his maternal grandfather was from Odessa. I can’t resist noting that when Fievel lands in New York he is enchanted by a beautiful entertainer mouse who, as an Irish mouse, is, presumably, a Gentile. One can’t help but think of the parallels with Spielberg’s wife,  WASPy actress Kate Capshaw.

The Fabelmans closely follows Spielberg’s own family bio: the engineer dad, the pianist mom, the three sisters, the moves from New Jersey to Arizona, and finally, to Film’s heartland, California. Strangely, the movie parents are not Jewish. Well, that’s to say that the director’s alter ego Sammy’s parents are played by non-Jewish actors Michelle Williams as mom Mitzi, and Paul Dano as  dad Burt. So…yeah, casting non-Jews in roles that are about Jewishness is an issue that comedian Sarah Silverman has addressed. In an essay, she asks why Jews often don’t get cast as Jewish characters.

In my view, Jewish men tend to get cast in comedic roles, while women are typically passed over for glamorous roles. Spielberg reports that he cast Williams and Dano because they had characteristics that reminded him of his parents. Still! It would have been a great opportunity to see Jewish actors playing Jews as lead actors in a very high-profile film. But it is his story to tell, so I guess I can’t have him redo it with Natalie Portman and Paul Rudd. (Yes, Paul Rudd! He’s underrated.)

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Gently staging an intervention, Sammy asks his mom to look in the mirror & really consider her haircut

We meet young Sammy (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord) in New Jersey, 1952 when he is going to the movie The Greatest Show on Earth. The six-year-old is trepidatious about seeing his first film, but, once in the theater, he falls under the spell of the movie. I guess seventy years ago this melodramatic propaganda glorifying circuses was celebrated – it won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. What most affects Sammy is a sequence in which a train crashes. He goes home and stages crashes over and over with his train set. Finally, filming the recreation gives him a sort of closure. But his electrical engineer dad is like: Respect your toys, Sammy!  While his artist mom insists: He’s looking to gain control over his fear!

Sammy’s parents seem to be polar opposites, dad Burt is a mild-mannered techy guy and mom Mitzi is impulsive and artistic. While dad earns extra money repairing tvs, mom practices classical piano pieces. From Sammy’s kid POV, things are fine as the family moves to Arizona for Burt’s career. We see Sammy as a teen (Gabriel LaBelle), earning Boy Scout badges and recruiting his sisters and friends as actors in his movies. Inspired by the tv shows he consumes, Sammy makes Westerns and war movies. Very mid-America, mid-Twentieth Century stuff.

Sammy’s learning curve on filmmaking is not steep. After reviewing some completed film, he sighs that it’s not perfect. He doesn’t struggle to churn out competent work, even as a teen.  I think this is one of those rare examples of someone having a lot of raw talent and grasping the skills quickly. When his dad fretfully tells Sammy to put more time into his Algebra, you feel like reassuring him: No, it’ll work out. Screw studying for finals.

Just like many people know bible stories, eg., Baby Moses in his little floating basket must grow up and part the Red Sea, so cinema’s great Steven Spielberg must get to California and make movies for the world. But first, a misbegotten family camping trip in Arizona with Uncle Benny. Who? Benny is not really Sammy’s uncle. He’s his dad’s best friend, or is he?

Sammy brings along his newest camera to film nature and his family. Some advice Mr. Fabelman: do not bring your single friend who gravitates to your wife like the moon to the sea, with Benny being the celestial body and Mitzi being the pliant body of water. Even Sammy, preoccupied by filming and adolescence, sees something is amiss when Benny takes over the campfire sing-along. And you can grasp the children’s horror when their mom, clad in a flimsy nightgown, does an impromptu modern dance drenched in the family car’s headlights. Benny and Burt are agog. Who knew national forests could be so ripe with soapy drama?

Maybe the family can be happy Benny-free in Cali. O! A side note: Benny is played by the decidedly unalluring Seth Rogen. Once again, I must question Mr. Spielberg’s casting. While Rogen is Jewish, the filmmaker should have cast a Jewish actor for whom a woman might actually consider adultery, like Jon Bernthal (We Own This City). But, no, the audience is left with Seth “I’m a Stoner” Rogen.

Mitzi doesn’t like the new set-up in California and becomes depressed. She barely makes the effort to maintain her hair style which is a uniquely awful creation of blond helmet plus ghastly bangs.

What would you do if you had depression? Start therapy, see your doctor for a prescription? Good ideas. Instead, Mitzi goes out and buys a monkey. Naturally, the poor wild animal stresses out living with human primates in an unnatural environment.

Meanwhile, Sammy has problems of his own, limping through his senior year at a new school that practices antisemitism. He gets verbally and physically harassed. But there is a girl who takes pity on him and wants to convert him to Christianity. When she invites him to her house, he sees that her room is adorned with pictures of movie stars intermixed with portraits of Jesus. This seems vaguely sacrilegious to me, but who am I to judge? When Sammy casts his gaze back at her, it’s clear that proselytizing arouses her. And while he has no interest in converting, he does have an interest in a girlfriend.

Sammy makes one last effort to connect with his high school experience. Senior Skip Day is coming up and he volunteers to film the day’s activities at the beach and compile the footage into a movie to be shared with the class before graduation. I was hoping it would be an exposé of the school’s antisemitism, but Sammy does something different. You’ll have to see The Fabelmans, to see Sammy’s take on his peers. And rest assured, even though it’s a (recreated) amateur effort, it’s better than his later work on the movie 1941 😉

Listen, even this master movie maker can’t escape some film criticism.

P.S.  The Shoah Foundation was established by Steven Spielberg in 1994. The institute, located at USC, is dedicated to collecting interviews from survivors and witnesses to the Holocaust and other genocides.

P.P.S. Sadly, wild animals are still being made to “act” in movies. Crystal, a capuchin monkey is used in The Fabelmans. For more info on why performing is so stressful for wild animals, click here.

Movie Loon’s Movie Review Shortcut:

Grade:  B+

Cut to the Chase: Insights into the great director as a person and artist. It’s very good, not great. Just a few too many cliches.

Humor Highlight: Michelle Williams’ Mitzi says lots of earnest, artsy things like: You do what your heart says you have to! and Movies are dreams that you never forget!

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