Early on in “The Fabelmans,” director Steven Spielberg’s extended reminiscence about his life when he was a youngster, a nervous child named Sammy is taken in 1952 to see his first movie, Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show On Earth.” It’s an epic circus adventure that eventually won the Academy Award for best picture.
The centerpiece of the film is a train crash which, as we will see, causes Sammy to want to crash his toy trains as he films them with a movie camera. This reminded me of another motion picture, “Super 8,” which was produced, but not directed, by Spielberg.
A train crash and kids making films are essential to the story told in “Super 8,” which I saw in 2011 with a completely movie-mad French friend of mine. Spielberg revisits his own childhood in “The Fabelmans.” If all family memories are dripping with nostalgia, then the director’s new movie is an oceanic tidal wave exploring and examining what came before.
With “The Fabelmans,” Spielberg has created his own monumental therapy session and, as it lurches towards the 151-minute mark, we recognize clearly that the director had some bitter issues he wanted to confront and possibly resolve. He’s decided to tell his life story as he remembers it.
In the movie — or fable, hence the title — we take a journey with Sammy (Steven) up to the cusp of what would become a historic filmmaking career. Spielberg is currently the highest-grossing director in the history of movies, with $10.6 billion in ticket sales around the world.
There are many wonderful things to enjoy and appreciate in “The Fabelmans.” There are also unfortunate events that colored Sammy’s (Steven’s) life, and not all of them are delivered with as much precision as needed. Things happened to Spielberg — it involves his parents — that wounded him deeply. They are awkwardly presented on screen.
Working with his frequent screenwriting collaborator Tony Kushner (“Munich,” “Lincoln,” and “West Side Story”), Spielberg captures the wonder and awe of movies as seen through the eyes of young Sammy. Not only is the boy smitten with the moviegoing experience, he is fascinated by the techniques required to create the art form.
His father Burt (wonderfully acted by Paul Dano), is an early member of a group of scientists who had a strong belief in the importance and future of computers. Dad knows gadgets and gizmos. This means Sammy has a better understanding of the “how” of creating films. In the Fabelman home in New Jersey, very little is denied Sammy in his quest to write, direct and produce his own little movies, with westerns and science fiction frolics favored.
When a golden opportunity at work allows Burt to earn more money and have more authority, he accepts his company’s solid offer and the family moves to Arizona. Along for the ride is Bennie (a slightly miscast Seth Rogen), who is Sammy’s surrogate uncle and Burt’s best friend at work and in life.
In Arizona, Sammy, now a robustly talented teenager, continues to make movies, corralling his Boy Scout friends to act in key roles and participate with behind-the-scenes tasks. He is utterly enthralled with Hollywood and the Dream Machine. Is it really possible that he could work in the industry? Gabriel LaBelle delivers a superb performance as the teen Sammy.
Sammy’s mother Mitzi does what almost all women did in the 1950s and early 1960s. She joins the caravan. We learn she has a beautiful voice and has given up the chance to possibly sing professionally. Mitzi (an occasionally over-the-top Michelle Williams) presents herself as OK with her maternal role in the Fabelman household; however, her supposed heart of joy is sometimes hidden behind a veil of darkness.
One more new location is in store for the Fabelmans, which includes two daughters. It’s a move to northern California, and it will result in the breaking of the facade of family togetherness. Additionally, there’s always been something a bit off-kilter about Mitzi. Her desire to drive the kids through a rare tornado in New Jersey seems more like trying to fill a void rather than just a random act of kookiness.
Unlike the way it is for many transplants, California is not a paradise for the Fabelman family. There is marital discord and Sammy is forced to confront anti-Semitic bullying. Burt faces a spiral of depression. and Mitzi, well Mitzi, whose heart has been wrenched in different directions, buys a pet monkey for companionship. The former piano prodigy is untethered from reality.
The first hour or so of “The Fabelmans” is a genuine pleasure to watch. The magic of the movies is an essential ingredient. But as adult problems undermine everything, we as members of the audience are compelled to face the idea that Spielberg himself may have been the wrong choice to detail the negatives of a childhood that started out seemingly blessed and ended up fragmented.
The real world is, by nature, filled with unknowns, but in his film, Spielberg seems to be forcing himself to confront the challenges within his family that almost derailed his dream. The overlong movie wobbles and becomes repetitive. Irksome melodrama replaces assured dramatic storytelling. Of what was Spielberg uncertain? Did he slowly begin to regret doing a tell-all?
A visit from a curmudgeonly relative named Boris, a circus lion timer who has worked on film sets, seems almost too pat, too perfect for the exposition and advice he delivers. Boris, played with gnarled whimsy by Judd Hirsch, tells Sammy to go with his passion. You want to make movies? It’s a tough business. But if it’s inside your heart, run with it. Spielberg ran with it.