I hated Steven Spielberg's West Side Story. I thought a great director was losing his magic by heavily bringing our attention to his tricks. Spielberg seemed so preoccupied with achieving technical brilliance (like that unbroken shot in the opening) that we were left with nifty camera movements but zero substance. The original West Side Story is far from a masterpiece (it's barely an average movie), and Spielberg's version felt equally - if not more - nasty. Unsurprisingly, I approached The Fabelmans with a bit of caution, prepared to have my heart broken by Spielberg - twice!
However, my fears disappeared almost instantly. The Spielberg Magic appears right from the beginning and never recedes. You know the movie is going to be splendid from that opening scene where Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams) coax their son, Sammy (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord), into watching a movie. Burt goes into the logistics, explaining how a projector works and what's the persistence of vision. Conversely, Mitzi says, "Movies are like dreams, dolls, that you never forget." Spielberg very cleverly uses Sammy as a human line separating Burt and Mitzi, brain and heart, logic and magic. This is the Spielberg who was missing from West Side Story - the one who conjures magical, meaningful visuals without blowing his own trumpet.
Look at the name of the movie Sammy watches with Burt and Mitzi: The Greatest Show on Earth. Spielberg, in a way, is promising a great show through The Fabelmans. And what a show it is! Young Sammy gets so absorbed by the train accident scene that he uses a toy train to recreate it. Mitzi plants the seeds of filmmaking in him by giving him a camera to record the accident and also becomes his first audience. She encourages her son to make movies, while Burt sees it as a hobby. But the latter never backs out from supporting his kid and sometimes even helps during shootings. Sammy has the best of both worlds. He uses logic to make holes in the film and delivers joy through a convincing gunfire scene. He uses his father's "science brain" and offers something that is romanticized, just like his mother's perspective (observe how she describes monkeys).
The Fabelmans presents movies as something capable of revealing the truth. Through this visual medium, Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) finds out about the romance between Bennie (Seth Rogen) and Mitzi. The filmmaker, meanwhile, is shown as a concealer of the truth or a seller of fantasy. Sammy removes Bennie and Mitzi's footage from the final film and presents a bully as someone possessing starlike qualities. There's also that well-known fact here about filmmakers providing happiness despite going through a lot of troubles. As the students enjoy watching the footage from Ditch Day, Sammy is seen in a sad mood because his girlfriend has broken up with him, and his parents are getting divorced. All this is not new information. But it's pleasing how the movie combines these filmmaking details with the personal text.
The faces of the actors are open. You can practically see their souls through their countenance. Every emotion and expression is clearly delivered and defined, and it's very easy to separate good people from bad ones. When good people behave selfishly, or the bad ones show vulnerability, you quickly grasp what must be going on inside their minds. I would like to bring your attention to Chloe East, as she has perfect comic timing, evident from the scene where she uses spray in a car at just the right time. Judd Hirsch almost steals the spotlight with his brief appearance as Boris Podgorny, Sammy's granduncle. He informs Sammy that family and art will tear him in two. He further adds that Sammy's love for art will always be greater than his love for family. And these words become true during the scene where Burt and Mitzi announce their separation. While the family members cry over the news, Sammy imagines himself filming the moment.
Spielberg's best films, like Jaws, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, to name a few, make us ecstatic, and The Fabelmans is undoubtedly one of those films. Spielberg's visual prowess is so high that he effortlessly creates a joke by moving his camera during the last scene. Before this moment, you get a delightful cameo from David Lynch. "We're junkies, and art is our drug," says Boris to Sammy. As a film junkie, I want more drugs like The Fabelmans from one of the greatest directors of our time.
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