'The Fabelmans' Review: Spielberg Takes A Victory Lap

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'The Fabelmans'
One of the best movies of the year is a deeply personal project from one of our all-time best filmmakers.

For all the personal experiences Steven Spielberg relives in "The Fabelmans," seeing the movie for the first time felt very much like making a memory of my own that I'd keep forever. I'm still savoring the moments I spent sitting in the theater at the Toronto International Film Festival world premiere with a stupid grin on my face, knowing what I was watching was something much more special than I could have ever expected.  

To be clear, "The Fabelmans" is a film by Spielberg, about Spielberg, which reminds us that the director is arguably the best to ever yell, "Action!" What a legend. Perhaps we forget that because he hasn't helmed a film firmly at the center of mainstream culture in recent memory, but the way we consume content now is much different than when the director was becoming a household name. Spielberg is one of the few remaining American filmmakers diligently working to remind us of the importance of the communal cinematic experience. Enter: "The Fabelmans." 

This is Spielberg's version of a memoir, and therefore more personal than anything he's done. It's a love letter to both filmmaking and his own family, relishing a lifetime learning the art of cinema to tell his story. The movie shows us the director's upbringing, first exposure to movies and his subsequent obsession with making them himself. It's notable, however, that Spielberg here goes by Sammy Fabelman, indicating what we're seeing is semi-autobiographical, with some creative liberties. This is not a work of nonfiction, and the director is not asking us to take it completely at face value. 

The film opens with Burt and Mitzi Fabelman (Paul Dano and Michelle Williams are both fantastic, and Williams in particular is already receiving much-deserved Oscar buzz) taking young Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-Deford) to his first movie, 1952's "The Greatest Show on Earth." He's mesmerized, of course, but not in a usual way; he wants to recreate what he just experienced on the big screen. Fast forward to Sammy as a teenager (Gabriel LaBelle, more than holding his own alongside a seasoned A-list cast) spending his free time making his own amateur films with friends and schoolmates. Unsurprisingly, the kid has a knack for directing, though Burt keeps referring to it as just a hobby (spoiler: it never was). 

Seth Rogen also delivers some of the best work of his career as Bennie Loewy, Burt's best friend who's essentially an uncle to Sammy and his sisters. The more time we spend with Benny and the family, the more we see there's a bond between him and Mitzi that's a little cozier than just friendship. A recurring theme throughout many of Spielberg's movies is divorce, and in "The Fabelmans" we see the impetus of all that, including how the filmmaker was affected by his parents' relationship. And while Bennie is ostensibly the villain in this story, he's never actually portrayed as a bad guy. Rogen handles that balance delicately, with his usual good-natured charm. 

Judd Hirsch also shows up as Sammy's actual uncle, Boris, in a total whirlwind of a performance that may also receive an Oscar nomination despite his screen time lasting no more than 15 minutes. The TIFF audience applauded when Boris' visit ended. While festival crowds are often in a "I'm just happy to be here" mood, reactions like that typically don't come until the end of a movie. (Spielberg and the cast received an extended standing ovation following the screening, to the point where the moderator had to cut it off so he could begin the Q&A). Hirsch is that good. 

"The Fabelmans" is one of the most delightful, charming and heartwarming films of the year. It's also unexpectedly one of the most laugh-out-loud funny. This was, and I believe will continue to be, total comfort-food viewing for me. The screenplay Spielberg and frequent collaborator Tony Kushner put together uses exceptional comedic beats to punctuate the more tender family moments, but the film never feels tonally out of balance. Storytelling subtlety is not what this movie is going for, but "The Fabelmans" works because, well, everyone involved is excellent.  

The movie may be a little too sweet or self-congratulatory for some (the argument being that Steven Spielberg thinks very highly of Steven Spielberg). And while I did have reservations going in that Spielberg would be hitting me over the head with how much I need to love cinema and how the theatrical experience must forever be preserved, I came out in love… with a movie. That's the magic of Spielberg, I guess. No matter how much I love "The Fabelmans," though, my feelings could never match the love Spielberg clearly has for filmmaking in general, or the memories of his family as he came of age. "The Fabelmans" has massive "call your parents" energy, and indeed, I can't wait to watch it with them.