The newest hottest trend for directors is self-reflection. Roma, Belfast, and Armageddon Time are recent examples of filmmakers looking at their past and deeming it worthy of the filmgoing audience. Steven Spielberg is up next with The Fabelmans, an overly-long but watchable film that is surprisingly messy for one of cinema’s cleanest filmmakers.
The film follows Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), who falls in love with filmmaking at a young age. Sammy’s scientifically-inclined father Burt (Paul Dano) isn’t discouraging, but sees it more as a hobby. Sammy’s free-spirited mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) is much more encouraging. Sammy, his three sisters, and parents are frequently joined by “Uncle” Bennie (Seth Rogen), Burt’s best friend.
Sammy navigates his love for film, a big family move to California, anti-Semitism, his own love life, and his family’s upheaval…all within just a few short years of his adolescence.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is regularly criticized for their adherence to a shared universe, sometimes to the detriment of the story they are trying to tell. Spielberg follows the same conceits, but it’s one of personal reverence. Hey look, here’s how my parents shaped my life! Here’s the seminal moment where Judaism comes into play. Did I mention I care about John Ford? The director is too wrapped up in his own mythology to have anything new or interesting to say about it.
The Spielberg “formula” consists of a director who knows exactly what needs to be done in order to wring the absolute most out of every scene. Spielberg-the-director wants every frame to feel as real as if you were transported to the place at time. Spielberg-the-writer abandons all pretense of reality. His script (co-written by Tony Kushner) is wall-to-wall with wise-man platitudes and Confucius-like musings through the eyes of a bespectacled little sister. The director wants us to believe this is really how it was. The writer hopes we are actually that stupid.
That’s his big trick. He seen as this arthouse nerd filmmaker, but one who almost exclusively makes popcorn blockbusters (the term “blockbuster” was based off the reaction to Jaws, for crying out loud). Spielberg is not avant-garde, attempting to bloat deeper metaphors off wild situations. He makes films that the audience (especially the one I was in) is meant to lap up. His direction steers an audience in the way he wants, but the story suffers because he knows exactly what that audience is hoping to see. He’s really good at it, but let’s not act like this is a big masterpiece because it’s audience-friendly and about the love of movies.
The “big” scene of the film is where, out of the blue, Mitzi’s great uncle Boris (a really going-for-it Judd Hirsch) shows up following the death of Mitzi’s mother. As a silent film star, Boris tears into the guts of a scene and lays out Sammy’s entire worldview and how art is about pain and sacrifice. Then he leaves. There is an interesting story to be told about how art consumes and destroys you, but that thread is only mentioned again sparingly.
Williams has been getting the bulk of the praise, but I just don’t see it. Mitzi’s eccentrics play more like a parlor trick than a real person. She’s dancing in the moonlight for no reason! She only uses plastic cookware to protect her piano fingers. Williams never transcends her quirkiest features to be anything more than a mismatch to Burt. Dano is the more stoic figure as Burt. His dorky enthusiasm for his work is a bit cliched, but his willingness to be the bad guy in the family is quietly brave. His barely elevates his words above a whisper, but commands respect in the house.
LaBelle does what he can as the Spielberg stand-in, but he spends the majority of the film being talked to those wise-man platitudes. He wants to be a filmmaker, but all of the things in life just keep happening to him. He has no agency. He doesn’t make anything happen, it’s just pure luck that things work out the way they do. Rogen isn’t given much to do with the exception of a single monologue. He is a welcome sight, but never gets too much in the way.
Hirsch is great in his one scene, but he pops in for five minutes and never shows back up. Chloe East pops in for the second-half of the film as Sammy’s horny Jesus-loving girlfriend. Her presence gives the film a welcome breath of fresh air it desperately needed. David Lynch plays the aforementioned John Ford, and needless to say, it leaves a lasting impression.
The audience couldn’t get enough of the film. Each choreographed laugh or triumphant moment was happily enjoyed. I felt like it was a joke I wasn’t in on. It all felt too planned, too deliberate. Spielberg is trying far too hard to make you try to feel something. It never feels in any way organic.
The Fabelmans is not a bad film. In fact, I found it enthralling and well-made. It’s far too long and self aggrandizing, but what can you expect from one of the best commercial filmmakers making a film about his own mythology.
The Fabelmans is now playing in theaters nationwide