WORDS: Dave Bradley
Director, co-producer and co-writer Steven Spielberg’s follow-up to his 2021 redo of West Side Story is a semi-autobiographical family drama which often proves very sweet despite some forced moments, and naturally leaves you wondering just how much of it is, you know, autobiographical.
Co-written and co-produced by Pulitzer and Oscar fave Tony Kushner, this was in development years ago but never attempted, surely because Spielberg’s parents, Leah and Arnold, were still alive and, of course, he wasn’t quite old enough. It’s also one of his rare box-office flops, which suggests that either he’s losing his blockbuster touch into his later 70s, or audiences are more interested in that damn Avatar thing.
Young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) is taken to the cinema on the evening of January 10, 1952, and a lot of convincing is necessary on the part of Mom Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Dad Burt (Paul Dano) for him to venture inside and watch Cecil B. DeMille’s overblown epic The Greatest Show On Earth. Although initially scared, Sammy is quickly entranced, especially by the now-goofy-looking disaster-movie finale, and soon he’s trying to replicate it with a train set he receives as a Hannukah present and Burt’s state-of-the-art 8mm camera.
The Fabelman family move from New Jersey to Phoenix, Arizona, in 1957 for Burt’s work, and they’re accompanied by Burt’s lovely bestie and business partner ‘Uncle’ Bennie Loewy (Seth Rogen – who else?), as Sammy is shown to suddenly be 16 years old and now played by the excellent Gabriel LaBelle. He starts shooting bigger, more complex productions with newer equipment and Boy Scout pals as, all the while, his family fragments, and he painfully discovers that the camera can certainly capture some painful truths.
Williams and Dano are good here, of course, but there are awkward interludes where they struggle with the accents and the strained emotions, while Rogen has an easier time playing Benny, who has less Academy-Award-wannabe close-ups and speeches. Judd Hirsch also turns up in a lengthy cameo as the grieving Boris (Sammy’s genuine, sitting-Shiva uncle), but the adults are rather outshone by the younger players: funny Chloe East as Sammy’s Jesus-obsessed girlfriend Monica; Sam Rechner and Oakes Fegley as anti-Semitic bullies Logan and Chad; and LaBelle himself, who portrays Sammy with exactly the right combination of burning ambition, teenage rage, painful naïveté, and giddy horniness.
And the final sequence has been much-betrayed around the traps, so let’s keep it a secret here. At any rate, it features a great filmmaker (and pal of Spielberg’s) as a great filmmaker, and concludes with one of the very best jokes in Steven’s entire glittering career.
The Fabelmans is showing at cinemas now.
7 out of 10 STARS