Hollywood loves a film about cinema.
This is not a new phenomenon; but recently, it seems that Tinseltown feels even more fascinated in delving into its own past.
Sam Mendes has gushed over the power of the big screen experience in the sincere-yet-mawkish Empire of Light, and Damien Chazelle has created an OTT ode to the majesty of movies with Babylon, which is watchable until its nauseating last act, concluding with a cringeworthy montage of clips celebrating films throughout the history of cinema.
Somewhat surprisingly, neither film was nominated for Best Film at the Oscars and have underperformed during awards season, when many predicted voters would go gaga over these movies about movies.
The Oscars did, however, nominate Steven Spielberg’s new film, The Fabelmans, a semi-fictionalised autobiographical look at movie magic. It’s hardly surprising: the beautifully made film comes from one of the industry's most acclaimed directors, and its nomination was telegraphed chiefly because Hollywood loves a meta narrative and rarely misses an opportunity to pat itself on the back when it comes to films celebrating filmmaking.
The Fabelmans is a personal cine-memoir that focuses less on Hollywood as an industry and more on creative passion. It follows Spielberg-avatar Sammy Fabelman (young Mateo Zoryan, older Gabrielle LaBelle) and his passion for making movies. The creative spark is ignited for the young scamp when his parents take him to the cinema to watch Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. A love story is born.
His father Burt (Paul Dano) then buys him a train set and the pint-sized wonder sets about filming his own train crash set-piece with dad’s camera. Whereas his father, a computing engineer, explains to his son the technicalities of cinema, Sammy’s mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) shares that movies are like dreams coming to life. Armed with these complementary viewpoints, Sammy goes through childhood and teenage life with celluloid on the mind, even as his parent’s disintegrating marriage, bullying and first loves all threaten to eclipse a creative drive that will come to define him.
Brass tacks: If you’re looking for the 150-minute origin story of the man who gave us Jaws, ET and Jurassic Park, The Fabelmans is the film for you.
It’s a love letter to cinema, to his mother and, yes, to himself. However, there are no risks or major narrative stakes to this episodic tale - yes, growing up is hard, pain will ensue from breakups, and families will always frustrate - and The Fabelmans ends up as a beautifully orchestrated but often cloying personal statement.
There are moments of genuine magic to this fairly inert drama (mostly witnessing a young man discover a passion that will last a lifetime), all bolstered by Janusz Kamiński’s warm cinematography and John Williams’ moving score. The acting is also excellent – for the most part.
Sammy is a difficult role to pull off (especially considering the actor is directed by the real-life person he’s portraying) but LaBelle is terrific. Paul Dano manages to convey his character’s internal struggles with quiet aplomb, while Seth Rogen is a solid sparring partner as "Uncle" Bennie.
And then there’s Michelle Williams as Mitzi.
Williams has been lauded for her performance and even bagged an Oscar nomination for her efforts. However, her larger-than-life portrayal of a tempestuous housewife feels caricatural and an exercise in overacting, one tailored for Oscar reels due to the abundance of emotive close-ups and teary telenovela proclamations.
There is a case to be made that this is a character playing at being happy and trying to hide her anxieties through buoyancy and performing via OTT facial expressions. But it just doesn’t work, and Williams’ performance sadly undermines her character’s legitimate mental struggles, as well as an important strand within Spielberg’s films. Anyone familiar with his filmography knows that the theme of divorce and broken families reverberates strongly in his stories; it’s a shame that the same can’t be said here. If Williams triumphs over Cate Blanchett or Michelle Yeoh in the Best Actress category come Oscars night, it will truly be a crime.
Thankfully, two smaller performances stand out.
The first comes from Chloe East, who is a comical delight as Monica Sherwood – the devoutly Christian high-schooler who takes a shine to Sammy and seduces the Jewish boy via prayer. Her short moments on screen are perfect.
The second comes at the very end, and not only feels perfectly cast but also shrewdly timed.
Indeed, Spielberg may have meandered throughout the film but the final 5 minutes are worthy of a time capsule. Filmmaker (and all-round genius) David Lynch cameos as a cigar-smoking John Ford, who bestows some wisdom on young Sammy.
“Remember this,” Ford says. “When the horizon is at the bottom, it’s interesting. When the horizon is at the top, it’s interesting. When the horizon is in the middle, it’s boring as shit.”
The final shot of The Fablemans takes the advice to heart. With the horizon in the middle of this image, Spielberg adjusts the camera by moving the horizon towards the bottom of the frame.
It’s a brilliant note to end on – one full of hope and joy – and its meta quality feels like a knowing wink to the audience that Spielberg, despite having nothing left to prove, remains a passionate student of the craft he loves so dearly. You won’t find a final shot like that all year.
There’s every chance that this film will win several Golden Baldies on 12 March – including Best Picture and Best Director. Hollywood won’t resist - especially amid claims that the film industry is on life support. The Academy may go for: "Now’s the time to remind audiences of the value of movies through movies about movies!"
Cynicism aside, there’s no arguing that Spielberg sure knows how to make a movie. He has more than earned the right to share the story of how he fell in love with the magic inherent to filmmaking, and many have already been won over by The Fabelmans ’ nostalgic and warm charms.
However, even if it never falls into self-mythologizing, this still feels like an overly indulgent trip down memory lane.
Yes, there is magic when the lights go down and the film starts. Cinema is a medium of great meaning and power, one that should be celebrated at all costs. But no heartfelt crowd-pleaser is a (late-career) masterpiece just because it features the medium looking in on itself.
That last frame is great, though.
The Fabelmans is out in cinemas now.