As personal and intimate as a Steven Spielberg movie gets, “The Fabelmans” (Universal/Amblin), co-scripted by Spielberg and gay writer Tony Kushner, arrives in theaters shortly after James Gray’s “Armageddon Time.”
Both movies are about boys coming to terms with their artistic natures in families where such creative exploration isn’t necessarily encouraged. Additionally, “The Fabelmans” and “Armageddon Time" also address social issues, such as late 20th-century anti-Semitism.
Surprisingly, “The Fabelmans” and “Armageddon Time” have even more in common. The lead actresses in both movies, Michelle Williams (who gives an Oscar-worthy performance as matriarch Mitzi in “The Fabelmans”) and Anne Hathaway (whose performance in “Armageddon Time” isn’t as strong as Williams’) are both what they refer to in the old country as shiksas who happen to be married to Jewish men offscreen. Fortunately, someone was able to locate at least two Jewish actresses to play the bubbes: Jeannie Berlin as Hadassah in “The Fabelmans” and Tovah Feldshuh as Mickey in “Armageddon Time.”
“The Fabelmans” opens in January 1952 when anxious boy Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) is taken to see his first movie – “The Greatest Show on Earth” – by his parents Mitzi (Michelle Williams, assured an Oscar nomination) and Burt (a miscast Paul Dano). Mitzi, a talented pianist who lost her chance at the concert stage, and Burt, a repairman whose technical skills are greater than his job permits, assure Sammy that they will keep him safe. Of course, his fears were for naught, and he becomes obsessed with movies and filmmaking.
As young Sammy begins developing his skills behind the camera, often with the help of his kid sisters Reggie and Natalie, it’s a fascinating depiction of the way a person can become consumed by becoming a craftsperson. But the happiness is short-lived when, with the birth of a fourth child, Burt needs to find better-paying work and accepts a job in Arizona. Close family friend Benny (a subdued Seth Rogen), who also works with Burt, follows the Fabelmans to the southwest.
Over time, it becomes obvious that Benny and Mitzi share a mutual attraction which, unbeknownst to them, adolescent Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle), has witnessed.
Another series of events, including the death of Mitzi’s mother Tina (Robin Bartlett), a brief visit from Mitzi’s Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch, destined for an Oscar nomination, despite chomping on every available piece of scenery), Mitzi’s psychological decline, and the family’s relocation to Northern California, all contribute to making Sammy into the person he is, in both good and bad ways.
On top of that, for the first time in his life, Sammy is faced with aggressive anti-Semitism at the hands of school bully Chad (Oakes Fegley) and golden-boy jock Logan (Sam Rechner). Romantic interest from devout Christian classmate Monica (Chloe East) only serves to complicate matters. Nevertheless, the reception to the movies that Sammy creates with his scout troop gives him the kind of encouragement that he needs.
At least 30 minutes longer than it should be, and more than a little self-indulgent, “The Fabelmans” takes some unexpected turns, including a scene in which Sammy comes face-to-face with legendary director John Ford (David Lynch), his personal hero. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and other times it’s an incredible and offensive annoyance in a scene that goes on at great length. When all is said and done, “The Fabelmans” is worth seeing, but in terms of Spielberg’s canon, it’s no “Schindler’s List.”
Gregg Shapiro is the author of eight books including the poetry chapbook Fear of Muses (Souvenir Spoon Books, 2022). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBTQ+ and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.