The Oscars Aren’t Where Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans And West Side Story Needed To Win

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Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” opens with two unseen parents pitching their son on the wonders of the moviegoing experience. The kid is scared to enter the theater; it’s his first movie, and he’s not keen on seeing huge faces onscreen in the dark.

For reasons both understandable (the pandemic, for one) and just unfortunate (cinema’s declining cultural clout), moviegoers in the 2020s likewise seem less inclined to see Spielberg’s films. The parental appeal to young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan) is as much an appeal on behalf of Spielberg, for whom Sammy serves as a semi-autobiographical stand-in.

Lowering themselves into the frame next to Sammy, his father, Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano), and mother, Mitzi Schildkraut-Fabelman (Michelle Williams), take on the voice of motion picture science and art, respectively, as they continue their appeals for moviegoing. Last month, Spielberg played cinema advocate in a similar way when he publicly thanked his “Minority Report” and “War of the Worlds” collaborator, Tom Cruise, along with Cruise’s Oscar-nominated 2022 sequel, “Top Gun: Maverick,” saying: “‘Maverick’ might have saved the entire theatrical industry.”

Whatever else it is, “Maverick” is a blockbuster, and though Spielberg practically invented those, he hasn’t made as many in recent years. The Academy Awards have come and gone now, and “The Fabelmans” came up empty-handed, which has left some asking: “What does Steven Spielberg have to do to win another Oscar?”

Others (raises hand) are less concerned with Spielberg receiving more Academy recognition, since he already won the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, plus three more Oscars for “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan” (two Best Director, one Best Picture). Arguably, the real loss for Spielberg came at the box office, which suggests general audiences weren’t paying attention enough to “The Fabelmans” or Spielberg’s even better 2021 remake of “West Side Story.”

West Side Story Will Make You A Believer

Even for someone like this writer, who’s not generally a musical fan and who’s been lukewarm on Spielberg’s output since 2008, “West Side Story” came as a revelation. It’s the kind of movie that makes you want to run and dance or rush to your balcony and sing to the street in an unironic way. We see those kinds of kinetic images onscreen as Adam Stockhausen’s Oscar-nominated production design brings old New York to life, and such unbridled energy is contagious.

It’s impossible not to get swept up in the momentum of a show-stopping number like “America.” In “West Side Story,” Spielberg brought the exhilaration of a night on Broadway to the big screen, relying on fresh talents like Rachel Zegler, Mike Faist, and Ariana DeBose to reenact the romance and tragedy of “Romeo and Juliet” in 1950s Manhattan. Like Rita Moreno — who co-starred in the original 1961 “West Side Story” and returns here as a different character, Valentina — DeBose did reap Oscar gold for her supporting role as Anita. However, while fellow Oscar nominee “Tick, Tick… Boom!” thrived on Netflix, Spielberg’s “West Side Story” bombed at the box office on opening weekend.

People will now likely see “West Side Story” on the small screen. (It’s currently streaming on Disney+ and HBO Max.) Twenty years ago, the explosion of song, dance, color, and pathos in Spielberg’s remake would have made it another “Chicago,” which is to say: a prestige film with a blockbuster turnout. It’s the stuff movies are made of, and pandemic notwithstanding, there’s no excuse for it to have fared so poorly in theaters. After all, its theatrical run overlapped with “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” which made almost $2 billion worldwide and is now the seventh-highest-grossing film ever.

Keeping Up With The Fabelmans

As the cinematic equivalent of a personal memoir, “The Fabelmans” doesn’t scream “crowd-pleaser” from the rooftops and clotheslines quite the same way as “West Side Story.” It, too, bombed, but that’s just a reminder that more adults need to support mid-budget dramas unless we want to see those die out entirely. This is the movie J.J. Abrams wanted “Super 8” to be, but it feels more intimate and truthful because it doesn’t shoehorn in a “Cloverfield”-like space alien in a bid for “mere blockbusterism” (as “Zeroville” author Steve Erickson once labeled the post-“Jaws” phenomenon).

Spielberg has already been there and done that with space aliens. He made “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” for crying out loud. With “The Fabelmans,” he and co-screenwriter Tony Kushner instead work through the family drama that formed him and made him one of our greatest living filmmakers.

As scorpion hunters, storm chasers, and dream chasers, Sammy and Mitzi Fabelman are imbued with the same restless, free-spirited, artistic quality. At times, Burt Fabelman comes off like a pedantic bore; spouting off technobabble, he’ll never be the life of the party like his best friend Bennie (Seth Rogen). Yet without the two sides parenting him, teen Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) might never be a movie director. This isn’t just Spielberg’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” It’s A Portrait of the Motion Picture Artist and Scientist.

With a name that overtly brands him a young mythmaker or “Fable Man,” Sammy combines the qualities of both parents. Mildly traumatized by the train crash in “The Greatest Show on Earth,” Sammy learns everything there is to know about how movies are made as a way of managing his fear. If only he could better manage the current indifference of moviegoers to straightforward human dramas.

Still The Greatest

Even with humor, a simple film about becoming a filmmaker doesn’t hold the same broad appeal as a high-concept film with escaped dinosaur clones like “Jurassic Park.” “The Fabelmans” might be more relatable, however, as a rumination on how the things we love sometimes isolate us. This shines through in the scene where Sammy’s grand-uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch in an Oscar-nominated performance) talks about how art can leave you lonely.

As convenient as it is to stream movies at home, the interweb has left moviegoers simultaneously more connected and disconnected than ever. As people get older and new generations come of age, it’s natural for tastes to change, but it’s a bad sign for the communal experience when even reigning Marvel mogul Kevin Feige says it’s become “harder to hit the zeitgeist.”

Steven Spielberg is now 76, and it feels like the blockbuster side of his filmography may have nuked the fridge a little circa 2008 with “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” (Keep in mind, that very movie gifted us the term nuking the fridge, which only goes to show that, even in his off moments, Spielberg still makes valuable contributions to society). With the exception of “West Side Story,” a dazzling one-off musical that proves he’s still the greatest, Spielberg’s most interesting films now tend to be dramas like “The Post” and “The Fabelmans.”

Last year, Jordan Peele’s “Nope” essentially remade “Jaws” with UFOs, warning us about the dangers of sheer blockbuster spectacle. It’s a sad state of affairs when moviegoers can’t be persuaded to see Spielberg’s other Sharks (the human ones who can sing and dance, as in “West Side Story.”) But hey, it’s never too late to rent “The Fabelmans” or stream “West Side Story” on Disney+ or HBO Max.

Read this next: The Best Movies Of 2022

The post The Oscars Aren’t Where Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans and West Side Story Needed To Win appeared first on /Film.

/Film – The Oscars Aren’t Where Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans And West Side Story Needed To Win
Author: Joshua Meyer
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March 19, 2023

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