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Like Jordan Peele’s “Nope” and Todd Field’s “Tár,” Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” is the most torturous kind of movie for a cinephile or critic to ponder: the failure undertaken by an ambitious artist, rich in elements that are notable to discuss but not especially compelling to experience in the moment. These films have enough predigested themes for a semester’s worth of term papers yet arrive virtually dead on the screen.

“The Fabelmans” is yet another reminder that Spielberg doesn’t do ordinary characters well anymore. He used to be fabulous at coaxing unknown performers and character actors to deliver grounded, moving performances. These days, he often strains for mythic iconography, and spectacle that leans into iconography is far less distinctive than spectacle that appears to feature real people. When Spielberg embraces his current taste for overt artifice, as in “Bridge of Spies,” the result can still be a very enjoyable master class in pop filmmaking. When he tries to blend the mythic with palpable everyday anxieties, as in “A.I.” and “The Fabelmans,” the drama seems to congeal on the screen.

“The Fabelmans” has a lot of weight to carry, as it is a dramatization of Spielberg’s childhood in New Jersey, Phoenix and eventually California in the 1950s through the mid ‘60s, when he was shooting little war movies and science-fiction epics with his sisters and classmates while enthralled by films like Cecil B. DeMille’s ‘The Greatest Show on Earth” and John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” For cinephiles, Spielberg’s coming of age is a myth, from his parents’ divorce, which haunts dozens of his movies, to his preternatural sense of editing and camera placement. Going straight to the well of influence for Spielberg movies would theoretically suggest the ultimate Spielberg movie.

Like “A.I.” before it, “The Fabelmans” begs for the sensibility of a Spielberg that doesn’t exist anymore. This material could use the bustling seriocomic urgency of the family scenes of his early work, as well as casual poignancy, rather than the all-caps kind that tends to figure in Spielberg’s films now. One of the loveliest, simplest, and most truthful scenes in Spielberg’s career occurs in “E.T.” when the boy is showing his new alien friend his toys and how they work. The child is faced with the unimaginable and he’s talking about his toys. This otherworldly visitor might as well be a pet, a new neighborhood child, or, most resonantly, absent dad coming to visit.

Every child of divorce understands this moment, this embrace of the familiar in the face of the unthinkable. No one can touch Spielberg’s understanding of these moments in his prime, and modern spectacles don’t even feign a pretense of humanity anymore. Spielberg used to enrich fantasy with the quotidian details of harried working-class people. For a long time now, his formal gifts have remained sharp while his sense of character portraiture has dulled. An aging legend, Spielberg now only works in “MOVIE” moments.

It occurred to me early on that I wasn’t buying much of what “The Fabelmans” was selling. The film has a weird habit of underscoring with the dialogue themes that are barely supported by what we’re seeing. Certain directors could milk that disjunction for irony, but from Spielberg this conflict seems to be born of indecision. Young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord) is said to be recreating the big crash from “The Greatest Show on Earth” with a train set as a means of dealing with his fears. Maybe, sure. He’s also probably just a little boy who likes to crash toys into one another. Imagine the buzzkill if someone appeared onscreen in “E.T.” to explain to you what the toy scene means.

Time and again, “The Fabelmans” aims for profundity at the expense of common sense. There’s an ongoing assertion that teenage Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) is like his flakey, seemingly deranged frustrated-musician mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams). Driven and practical, with a gift for tricks and doodads, Sammy clearly has a stronger similarity to his dweeby engineer father, Burt (Paul Dano), who holds the family together while Mitzi sucks the oxygen out of the house. This affinity between father and son is the most convincing texture in the movie. Yet Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s script keeps telling you about Sammy’s dangerous affinity with Mitzi. Spielberg, who has a very famous love for his mother and equally famous mixed feelings about his father, is working through something here, but the mixed messages are less ambiguous than muddled.

Your feelings for Mitzi will probably determine whether or not you succumb to “The Fabelmans.” For my money, she might be the most disastrous character to appear in a Spielberg film, and, yes, I’ve seen “Hook” and “The Terminal.” I have no idea what Michelle Williams, usually an extraordinary actress, is playing here. Williams is pitched to the rafters. Every smile is wide and twinkly and sinister, every movement is a pirouette. Online, she’s already been called Manic Pixie Dream Mom, and I can’t do any better than that. Mitzi is a free spirit, and to be fair, Spielberg unsentimentally shows how tedious free spirits, who’re addicted to their selfishness, can be. Mitzi is clearly “off,” perhaps undiagnosed bipolar, but that doesn’t justify Williams’ relentless mugging.

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  • Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment
  • Michelle Williams mugs for the camera and Gabriel LaBelle in “The Fabelmans.”

It is a tribute to Spielberg as an artist that he can’t pull off the film’s rigged “art-versus-technology, Mitzi-versus-Burt” thematic. If he’d taken certain shortcuts, he’d have a pat, manipulative movie that would be mediocre yet more smoothly watchable than the film he’s made. Spielberg is grappling here with what his ongoing motif of the absent father means, and he’s trying to reconcile self-mythology with truth. It has been widely reported that Spielberg resented his absent, distant father while doting on the mother that encouraged him, though in middle-age he discovered the family split due to mom’s infidelity. Burt is a mixture of all this baggage, all these shifting attitudes: the dad who’s distant and disapproving, yes, but mildly so, and he’s capable of insight and nurturing when you least expect it. Burt is this film’s most poignant creation, a man who finds himself at the center of a bustling family he barely understands, who is underplayed by Dano with a quiet, haunting sense of both pride and self-loathing.

The fact that Sammy, a.k.a. Spielberg, barely factors in his own autobiography might be another sign of neurosis. After all, the director prefers to be behind the scenes. Francis-DeFord has a warmth that draws you in, but he isn’t around long. LaBelle is the lead, and during a few clever moments he reminded me of young Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate.” Little Spielberg is often a cipher though, a compass for navigating real Spielberg’s fond remembrances of how he made startlingly polished movies on a shoestring as a boy. Real-life supports this self-congratulation; by all reports, Spielberg was a prodigy and his direction of the brilliant TV thriller “Duel” at age 24 bears this out.

With no real narrative to serve as a foundation for the “bits” though, “The Fabelmans” becomes a disjointed symphony of “and then this happened” that, given the caricatures and sermonizing, feels airless and detached from reality. Even on these hagiographic terms, the film misses opportunities. It mystifies me that Spielberg could somehow leave out the fact that he wrote and shot “Firelight,” a 2 ½ hour prototype for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” when he was 16, and had it shown at a small-town theater.

And if you can’t go with the flow of “The Fabelmans,” it will turn into one of those movies in which everything annoys you. I don’t believe that Jewish film nerd Sammy, taunted by Aryan super-studs with anti-Semitic slurs, would be courted by a gorgeous Christian girl, even if their first scene together has a blasphemous charge. I don’t believe that Mitzi would relieve the boredom of Burt with a guy who appears to be as nerdy and asexual as he is, even if he’s played by Seth Rogen. It might be based on reality, but I don’t believe that Mitzi and Burt would’ve gotten together at all. They exist in separate, opposing cartoon notions of the world.

And why does every production that Spielberg shoots with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski have to resemble a bleached-out, milky future-shock horror film? The compositions here are virtuosic, as they often are with Spielberg, but this showmanship distances us further from the stylized subject matter.

For all the film’s Sturm und Drang, little here feels human—that’s the ultimate problem. At least until David Lynch appears as John Ford and casually walks away with the movie. This juxtaposition of film legends is a cinematic coup that shouldn’t be taken for granted. Lynch isn’t cowed by the pressure of being in a Spielberg production, and his squirrely surliness links up with Ford’s taciturn, suffer-no-fools reputation. He walks to his own absurdist beat, reminding you of the vitality that’s otherwise missing from this enterprise.

The truth is that Spielberg has already told this story symbolically across decades with pop masterpieces. “The Fabelmans” prints a legend that’s already been printed, and so here the poetry feels secondhand.

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