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Wow! Did You Know Steven Spielberg Was a Kid Once?

‘The Fabelmans’ is a portrait of the artist as a control freak.

Courtesy of Amblin Entertainment

The Fabelmans is a Steven Spielberg movie about a boy who grows up to make Steven Spielberg movies. I could cut to the chase, like I’m supposed to, and just say it’s a movie about Spielberg himself. But the director has fictionalized his stand-in with such clinical mastery that, despite the best efforts of engaging young actors Mateo Zoryan and Gabriel LaBelle, Sammy Fabelman’s coming-of-age story never feels quite lived in. Rarely has an autobiography worked so hard to make its central character—its author—so unmysterious, so purely psychologically explicable, yet made him feel more distant than ever. The film is a therapy session disguised as an easter egg hunt.

But hey, that’s what our guy does, right? The man responsible for many of the past half-century’s most beloved movies has always been the most impersonal of personable filmmakers. Regardless of plot, genre, or relative weight, his films return to themes that are clearly important to him—the difficulties of family life (especially with regard to absent or insufficient fathers), his own (and others’) Jewishness (or otherness). And when he’s on, these motifs combine with his mastery of sentiment and craft and sensation to create that irresistible rush that has reshaped the pleasure neurons of just about any American under 60. But when he’s mid, the seams show. In the time his preoccupations take to travel from his subconscious to the screen, they often become weird auteurist tics that do little more than hint that there is a thinking, feeling adult behind the camera. 

So we might expect some sort of career-capping peek behind the scenes here, and we might also expect the scenes themselves to compulsively distract us from whatever revelations are couched underneath. Both true. The movie begins, of course, at the movies, with parents Mitzi (Michelle Williams, very much a Mitzi) and Burt (Paul Dano, as un-Burt-like a man who ever lived) coaxing an anxious Sammy into the theater to see Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. Burt, a computer engineer, breathlessly describes the science of movie projection. Mitzi, who once had dreams of becoming a concert pianist, says “Movies are like dreams you never forget.” This is how both parents will continue to speak and behave for the same length of time that it took Lincoln to guide the 13th Amendment through Congress. 

In fairness, The Fabelmans isn’t the nostalgia-suffused celebration of the Magic of Cinema that the trailer convinced your parents it is. The cute twist of the opening scene is that a massive onscreen circus train derailment winds up scaring the shit out of Sammy. And thus genius is born. He asks for a model train set and recreates the disaster, creating his first film to prove to himself that movies make disasters reversible. (Mitzi helpfully explains this all to us.) That Spielberg, seems to say, is his own story: He makes the scary stuff scary, then takes us safely home in the final reel. 

The Fabelmans breaks down into three acts, more or less, defined by geography and Burt’s upward mobility. First, there’s Sammy’s childhood in New Jersey, abustle with burgeoning postwar suburban optimism and Jewish family life, though already you can’t help but notice that Mom sure does laugh a little too eagerly when family friend Uncle Benny (Seth Rogan) jokes around. Then it’s off to Phoenix, where the rangy expanse gives Sammy the freedom to film action flicks with his pals. Here Judd Hirsch swings by for a quick scene as Mitzi’s monologue-favoring uncle to share platitudes on Art and Life and Family that many adults have inexplicably claimed are profound and insightful. Best Supporting Actor reel accounted for, he then disappears in a taxi. Finally, the Fabelmans make their way to California, where the inevitable divorce finally occurs and Sammy gets his first concentrated dose of anti-semitism and love.

The Fabelmans is at its best when expressing distrust in the way movies assume control over their audiences and creators. When Burt asks Sam to make a movie of their family camping trip, as a gift to Mitzi, who’s mourning her mother’s death, the footage inadvertently keeps capturing mom and Uncle Benny sneaking off intimately, clips the kid rewatches as compulsively as if it were the Zapruder film. (In a nice Hamlet-y touch, he then forces her to view the footage in a closet.) When Sam is asked to film his all-American California classmates’ beach party, the assignment brings out the budding director’s inner Leni Riefenstahl, and his bully (to his own chagrin) emerges as the film’s hero. Moral: Movies will control you if you don’t control them.

But much of The Fabelmans is a rote family drama, as Mitzi is drawn toward affable Benny while Burt sinks deeper into his career. (He gets an IBM job just in time to help with the unmentioned war budding in Vietnam. Congrats!) Michelle Williams, always excellent when called upon to be understated, is instead in full-on For Your Consideration mode here, while Paul Dano remains the Fisher-Price-headed cipher he’s forever been, leaving us to desperately forage for some subtlety in his underplaying. Gotta say though, it is amusing that after nearly a half-century of Spielberg daddy issues, Dano is the Final Boss. 

What renders the overfamiliar marital turmoil story inert is that we’re not shown a teen grappling with his parents’ divorce—we’re shown a 75-year-old man’s attempt to make his peace artistically with his parents by revising the script of his childhood. And that’s the rub with The Fabelmans—you’re likely to find it exactly as engaging as you find Spielberg’s not-exactly-unusual childhood. (Judging by the mesmerized critical response, it’s an engrossing topic for some!) And while Spielberg is hardly the first filmmaker to wax memoiristic in old age, few have ended their coming-of-age stories so jauntily. 

Because he’s Spielberg, the infuriatingly talented craftsman and storyteller with a mainline to mass American taste, there are great moments spliced throughout The Fabelmans, especially with the younger actors. The great Lane Factor (Cheese from Reservation Dogs, as you ought to know) gets a nice turn in Sammy’s Western film, and Chloe East is wonderful as a Jesus-infatuated teen who’s turned on by Sammy’s exotic young Jewishness. I mean, when a movie has a monkey and David Lynch with an eyepatch in it, who am I to kvetch? (Though a real genius knows they belong in the same scene.)

And yet. The Fabelmans is boomer bildungsroman as algebraic equation, with warring family influences (artsy and flighty mom on one shoulder, responsible horn-rimmed dad on the other) and definitive moments all adding up to a pat psychological evaluation. Again, craftsmanship is a protective hedge against the uncertainty of life, and this boy/man makes films to indulge his deepest fears then purges them with a happy ending. 

Yet every time The Fabelmans tiptoes into the shadows, it quickly retreats. Early in the film, Mitzi observes that Bach is reassuring to perform, because he provides “a little world you can be safe and happy in.” (Lydia Tár could not be reached for comment.) It’s an intriguing little hint: Spielberg as pop baroque, leading you into uncomfortable places but sticking around to tuck you in after it all ends well. And despite all the hours of entertainment, the actual classic films, that aesthetic has informed, it’s limited if not infantilizing. The nicest thing I can say about The Fabelmans is that Spielberg seems to acknowledge that.