'The Fabelmans' review: Spielberg's vanity project offers surface level insight
Courtesy of Universal
An autobiographical coming-of-age-story by one of Hollywood’s most prolific filmmakers, Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” is both the director’s long gestating vanity project and one of his weakest films to date. Considering Spielberg’s dense filmography has several films, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “ET,” that have hinted or explored deeply personal childhood trauma, “The Fabelmans” might clue us in to the choices he made throughout his lucrative career, but this two-and-half-hour melodramatic weepie is undercooked with a slew of cheesy and cringe-inducing sequences overshadowing what got the “Jurassic Park” director here in the first place: the magic of making movies.
Instead, “The Fabelmans” is a domesticated family drama co-written by frequent Spielberg collaborator Tony Kushner that explores themes of antisemitism, corporate America, and the appreciation of cinema in a glossy, Lifetime movie of the week lens. It tells the story of Spielberg stand-in Sammy Fabelman, a 1950s New Jersey kid (played here by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) who’s life is transformed after a matinee of “The Greatest Show on Earth” where a central trainwreck sequence invigorates his young mind. His mother Mitzi (Michelle Willams), a piano prodigy, encourages young Sammy to explore this avenue, eventually allowing him to use the family camera and film a similar trainwreck scene of his own (with the set he received over Hanukkah).
Sammy’s father Burt (Paul Dano) a genius computer inventor, thinks his ambitions as nothing more than a hobby with the hopes he’ll eventually grow out of it. Mitzi sees it as something more, a creative outlet that’ll let Sammy control the narrative. He’s equally encouraged by Burt’s best friend and engineering partner Bennie (Seth Rogen) who is always around for reasons that’ll be obvious within 10 minutes. These early scenes are attuned to Spielberg’s childhood imagination and you can see the narrative breadcrumbs that lead to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Saving Private Ryan.” Even more so when the film shifts gears to teenage Sammy (now played by Gabriel LaBelle), who has relocated to Arizona, as he begins staging larger productions with his Boy Scout troop of whom also double as his first test audience.
But the family dynamic changes, again, after a move to California and “The Fabelmans” devolves into a series of scattershot vignettes and underwhelming performances. Mitizi’s mental anguish takes control (she buys a therapy monkey to help with the pain), Burt struggles to comprehend how his family became so distant, and Sammy endures a squad of muscular, racist, bullies who are superficial to a tee, and a deeply religious Christian girl (Chloe East) who thinks he’s a good kisser. Several of these moments, including the interactions with the bullies, linger 10-minutes longer than you’d expect. I sat wondering when the film would ground itself back in the world of cinematic flourish, as opposed to spending time with schoolyard jocks that look like rejected extras from “West Side Story.”
“The Fabelmans” spells out every idea through artificial, well staged, terminology (cornball lines “Movies are a dream,” or “You can’t just love something - you have to take care of it” come across disingenuous) while incorporating specific memories, his grandmother passing away, corralling and selling baby scorpions for film stock cash, into surface level plot threads. Even Janusz Kaminski’s usually reliable cinematography and superstar composer John Williams’ score feel straightforward, suggesting very little imagination when it comes to taking creative liberties with the material. There are hasty scenes that suggest a genuine sense of artistic appreciation and how filmmaking can be a useful tool for healing and discussing hard truths. For example, Sammy uses the form as a way to confront Mitzi about her affair with Bennie (an inclusion which needed more room to grow) and tries to keep a hateful jock from breaking his nose (again), but it never rises to its potential because Spielberg doesn’t create any serious conflict or action within these frames. It’s too neat and tidy.
Judd Hirsch shows up briefly as Sammy’s great uncle Boris, giving an impassioned speech about family, art and the dangers that comes with mixing the two in one of the film’s finer performances (likewise for a David Lynch cameo). The same can’t be said for Williams’ literal and figuratively trapped performance which fails to ignite any sliver of emotional catharsis despite the actor’s best efforts. Young LaBelle ups the charm and makes for a convincing, younger Spielberg and Dano’s Burt is a warm, soothing presence that tries finding the layers that put this man together.
The results are an average, slightly fictionalized (hence the name “Fabelmans”), and pointed drama that offers basic, contextualized knowledge of why Spielberg fixates on the themes he does (including a joke about why none of his films feature women in lead roles and a final shot that’ll be catnip for diehard fans). Sadly, the depth and nuance isn’t here nor is the hook that pulls it together for one cohesive vision. Sure, this might’ve been the movie Spielberg wanted to make, and the one people have been wanting him to make for his entire career, but coming from arguably the greatest cinematic genius of a generation, “The Fabelmans,” in its inherent lack of identity and insight, ends up being a colossal disappointment.
THE FABELMENS is now playing in theaters.