Spielberg’s trip down memory lane is deeper and funnier than expected

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo

The Fabelmans
Opens Nov. 23
4 out of 5

I’ve never been shy to use a self-reference when reviewing a movie, but you’ll excuse me if I push that quirk a bit further this once. The first movie I have memory of is Close Encounters of the Third Kind — specifically, the gloriously lit spaceship. Since that moment, Steven Spielberg has been a constant in my life. He almost got me banned from Disney screenings once: I spilled the beans on Lincoln too early.

At his best, Spielberg can alter your perception of reality (Schindler’s List has made the Holocaust tangible for later generations). At worst, he can bore you to tears (Lincoln, Amistad). But you can’t deny the artistry, let alone the mind behind the camera.

After a career of 50 plus years, it’s time for Spielberg to take stock. His stab at introspection tackles head-on a subject he has hinted at many times before (Close Encounters, E.T., Catch Me if You Can): the broken family. His, specifically.

The thinly fictionalized The Fabelmans covers Spiel — I mean, Sammy Fabelman’s childhood and teenage years (fable-man, get it?) The eldest son of a traditional Jewish family, Sammy falls in love with the movies at age seven and never lets go. His parents’ imprint is noticeable. His mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) has an artistic, whimsical disposition, while his dad Burt (Paul Dano) is an early computer developer and a tech genius — if an emotional oaf.

As Sammy grows up, his parents grow apart. Mitzy and a friend of Burt, Bennie (Seth Rogen), have been having an emotional affair for years. While their feelings for each other are undeniable, their love for Burt keeps them from acting on their mutual affection. Sammy is the first one to find out and reacts like any teenager: poorly.

Life for Sammy is also some distance from perfect. After an idyllic childhood in Arizona surrounded by loved ones and friends willing to appear in his movies for free, a move to California turns him from golden boy to pariah. Forced to deal with real adversity for the first time (antisemitic bullies, his parents’ crumbling marriage), Sammy emerges a more rounded person, ready to embrace his calling and use cinema to explore the depths of the human soul. The best filmmaker of our times is born.

The Fabelmans is by no means a five-star film, but it’s not trying to be one. There’s no gut punch like the shark snacking on Quint or E.T. looking like a stale sausage at the bottom of a creek. It’s a simpler story: Spielberg is coming to terms with his formative years from a place of forgiveness (his parents, Bennie, himself). This is a movie he couldn’t have made when young and hungry.

At the same time, The Fabelmans is a love letter to cinema, both the craftsmanship and the act of experiencing moving pictures as part of a community. I’ve soured on the latter (too many cell phones and unmasked potential disease carriers to enjoy a movie in peace). But I see his point.

The movie is not without flaws. The most accomplished cast member, Michelle Williams, gives an annoyingly mannered performance that can get you out of the film (as can her haircut). Also, Judd Hirsch’s performance as Sammy’s great-uncle is so broad his character could be billed as “Judaism”.

A wonderful trend this year is the resurrection of the final frame as a mic drop (Aftersun has a doozey). Not shy of experimenting, Spielberg adds an epilogue of sorts to the film’s natural conclusion. I won’t spoil it (other than to say it involves another celebrated filmmaker). But the closing shot shows Spielberg at his most playful. At 75, he’s still young at heart. ■