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In educated, middle-class Jewish homes, it’s not uncommon for the kids to boast artistic passions and ambitions. To judge by Focus Features’ Armageddon Time and Universal’s The Fabelmans, two semi-autobiographical dramas from directors James Gray and Steven Spielberg, respectively, art is a thematic centerpiece, opening up a Pandora’s box of conflicting values.
An array of pragmatic and moral dilemmas, stemming in part from the protagonists’ identity as Jews, is at the core of each film. Our protagonists and their family members are conversant in the outlier’s life, having experienced antisemitism. Many of their self-assessments, goals and responses to others emerge from those defining events. Most relevant, both films are coming-of-age narratives filtered through the distorting lens of memory, colored in varying degrees of nostalgia, embellishment and the need for reconciliation with past events and significant others whose spectral presence haunts their respective filmmakers.
Set in the ’50s and ’60s, The Fabelmans explores budding filmmaker Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) and the traumatizing events leading to the breakup of his parents, Mitzi and Burt (Michelle Williams and Paul Dano). Filming the simmering domestic chaos in order to escape it, Sammy unintentionally captures a romantic interaction between his mother and his dad’s best friend, Benny (Seth Rogen). The picture becomes a devastating revelation, fueling his rage toward both of his parents — but especially his father, whom he views as most responsible for the marital crisis.
Burt Fabelman is a striver, defining worth by professional success. He is at once, paradoxically, an everyman and a Jewish archetype. An electrical engineer, Burt relocates his family from New Jersey to Arizona, then to Northern California, as a stepping stone on his career journey. With each new home, the family fissures grow wider. Sammy’s relationship with his dad is strained by the latter’s opinion of the art of filmmaking, which Burt views as a hobby at best. In Spielberg’s forgiving spin, however, Burt is just doing the best he can, even teaching his son the science of moving pictures.
Once setting sights on a career as a concert pianist, Mitzi Fabelman gave it all up to be a wife and mother. A frustrated, disappointed woman, she is nevertheless self-centered. “You don’t owe anyone your life,” she advises her son. Feeling trapped, she unravels — and the line between psychiatric disorder and eccentricity is thin. Either way, it’s the artist as flake. Great-uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch) also embodies the wild and wacky world of self-expression; he is the impassioned family black sheep, urging his nephew to follow his dreams despite the gut-wrenching sacrifices involved. “Family, art,” he bellows. “It will tear your heart out!” Overstated and bordering on satire, Boris is well beyond Jewish stereotype.
At his predominantly WASP high school, Sammy endures open expressions of antisemitism. But here we have a Spielbergian twist: Foreshadowing the optimism that characterizes so many of his movies, the most antisemitic kid has a change of heart after seeing himself in a heroic light thanks to Sammy’s filmmaking talents. The fanciful film ends on a note of affirmation and a bit of self-mythologizing. We all know who Sammy grew up to be, and so does the filmmaker.
Gray’s screen alter ego, Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), is captured at a younger, more formative age. A sixth grader in 1980 Queens, Paul is a talented painter and plans to pursue it professionally. His grandfather Aaron Rabinowitz (Anthony Hopkins) is fully behind him, while his straitlaced parents, Irving (Jeremy Strong) and Esther (Anne Hathaway), want their son to choose a financially solvent career.
The film centers on Paul’s friendship with Johnny (Jaylin Webb), one of the few Black kids in Paul’s class and with whom he shares a mischievous streak — though the punishments each receives, from teacher or principal or police, are unequal. Gray hints at the chasms between the Black and Jewish communities, their common ground notwithstanding. It’s the uncomfortable crux of the film.
Politically, the Graffs are liberals. They understand injustice, and certainly oppose it in theory, but acting upon those principles is another matter. When Paul is caught smoking weed with Johnny, his parents remove him from public school and enroll him in a conservative, all-white Christian academy. Irving believes integrated classrooms are a roadblock to Paul’s success, while Paul is troubled by his classmates’ casual racism. Irving says to Paul, “Life isn’t fair,” but he advocates pragmatic self-protection, even at the expense of others.
While both films embody Jewish characters and concerns, neither adds a new understanding of Jewish family life. There’s an intangible lack of authenticity in each (especially considering non-Jewish actors cast in Jewish roles). One can’t help but compare these films to a feature like Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), which is spot-on in its vision of a singular Jewish family and community of artists. Its specificity rings true as it never points to its Jewishness — it’s just there. Armageddon Time and The Fabelmans, on the other hand, don’t want their viewers to miss the obvious, which in turn makes them feel all the more generic.
Simi Horwitz has written for various outlets including The Washington Post, Backstage and independent Jewish publication The Forward.
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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