In theaters Nov. 23
The Fabelmans arrive in Arizona in the 1950s to follow their father, Burt (Paul Dano) as he climbs the career ladder in computing innovation. Mom, Mitzi (Michelle Williams) is a skilled concert pianist and free spirit who fends off her feelings to be a wife and mother.
Sammy (Gabriele LaBelle) is their firstborn and discovers a deep passion for filmmaking, one that will test his metal and that of his family.
“The Fabelmans” is a semi-biographical drama based upon Steven Spielberg’s adolescence.
The Fabelmans are a Jewish family immersed in their culture, and their passions. As Sammy becomes addicted to filmmaking, he begins to see his life through the lens of his camera.
Writer/director Steven Spielberg (along with Tony Kushner) brings his early life (from ages 7-18) to the screen. Unfortunately, it is easier to describe what this film isn’t rather than what it is. It is not about Spielberg’s professional filmmaking career, it’s not about a horrible childhood that forged an enduring passion for storytelling, and it’s not about that “ah-ha” moment that awakens the young lad to his skills of filmmaking.
This narrative is about an eccentric family in a buttoned-down era. A family with plenty of moxie, but one not very different from your family or mine. That’s the problem with this film. The story lacks distinction and drama compared to today’s standards. This is not to mean that the Fabelmans are boring, it means that today’s society is so vastly changed (for the worse?) that the Fabelmans struggle with depression, infidelity, racism and bullying almost seem quaint. This lack of drama slows the pace of the film, weakening its energy, making the film feel listless.
Audiences will connect with the Fabelmans, they will root for Sammy, but there is a distinct struggle with an emotional connection to the story. This comes in the lack of an anchor on which to attach our stronger emotions. Sammy is good kid, but as we wait for him to realize his place in the world, we begin to drift.
The cast is skilled and gives top-notch performances, especially Williams and Dano who display their own passions for acting with the commitments to their roles, but the meandering plot limits our connections to the characters.
Viewers wait for some punch to kick the story into gear, but that never arrives. It’s an ironic twist that one of the greatest filmmakers of all time struggles to adequately tell his own story.
The few themes that drive this story – follow your heart, no matter where it takes you – and everything happens for a reason – are more suited for fortune cookies than a 2.5-hour feature film. “The Fabelmans” is meant to reveal the roots of Steven Spielberg’s passion for filmmaking, but instead becomes a lethargic tale that is too close to his heart.
Dear Mr. Spielberg,
Your movies have given my family and I so much joy over the years. I was away at college the summer of 1975 when one warm July night, my roommates and I went to see “Jaws” at the local movie theater. You invented the summer blockbuster, and ever since, all your movies have been an event.
I introduced my children to “E.T.” first, and I still tear up every time I watch it. “Jurassic Park,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Schindler’s List,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Lincoln” -- you’ve made some of the best films of all-time.
“Bridge of Spies,” “Catch Me If You Can,” and “The Post” are personal favorites, and your adaptation of “West Side Story” was at the top of my Ten Best List last year.
So, I had very high expectations for “The Fabelmans,” especially after viewing the “Spielberg” documentary on HBO.
Maybe that adage, “Never meet your heroes” applies here.
Because, while I find the performances exceptional and the production elements superb, your retelling of your ‘semi-autobiographical’ coming-of-age story isn’t as magical as your other films.
Yes, you followed your dream, but turns out your childhood isn’t all that extraordinary. Except for the reason your parents’ marriage broke up, your early life was like many other kids – divorced parents, dad moving because of work, an artistic kid being bullied and for Jews, antisemitism.
Basically, you had a rather “Leave It to Beaver” childhood, not as vanilla as many a WASP, but fairly typical -- your parents loved you and your sisters, attempted to give you a wonderful life, and your dad was a genius engineer.
As a filmmaker, you were too close to the subject matter, and needed to get out of your own way.
When you concentrate on discovering your passion for filmmaking and finding ways to tell a story, now that’s fascinating.
But all that high school drama with the mean jocks, yawn. Except for the Ditch Day film, which really highlighted your gifts and how people are revealed upon observation.
But -- two and a half hours? And the best scene is at the end! You stuck the landing beautifully – and that little nod to Charlie Chaplin before the credits roll, chef’s kiss.
That final encounter on the studio lot gives the film the zest that was missing – and it was the spark that propelled your drive to be in the business.
It’s the best cameo of the year, no spoiler from me!
Your life as a golden boy of cinema has introduced you – and us -- to worlds of wonder, and we feel like we know you.
The film is heartfelt and shows how much love you have for your family and the movie-making process. Artists must create and you have been able to make an impact on a global scale. Truly remarkable.
You will be remembered as one of the greatest directors of all time, and we see the effort.
I will wait for the sequel that discloses your early career milestones, breaking through in Hollywood, and the people that shaped you along the way. Now, that story may be the extraordinary one that I was expecting here.
Sincerely, an unabashed fan whose favorite thing is discussing entertainment, and thinks that all of life’s riddles are answered in the movies.
Back to the nuts and bolts for review purposes -- Gabriel LaBelle makes quite an introduction as gawky young Sammy Fabelman, who makes movies using his Boy Scout troop as cast and crew.
Paul Dano and Michelle Williams are well-suited to play parents Burt and Mitzi, who bring up four children born during the post-World War II Baby Boom and moved the family from New Jersey to Arizona to Southern California before finally divorcing.
Williams has flashes of brilliance as the mercurial mom, a classically trained pianist whose concert days are past, but the longing isn’t. She’s in love with Bennie (Seth Rogen), Burt’s best friend, and they are eventually together.
When Sammy’s keen eye discovers a little too intimate interaction between the pair during a family camping trip, he’s devastated, resulting in viewing his mother differently. It’s a powerful scene when he shows, not tells, her what he saw.
That conflict is a major focus of the original screenplay co-penned by Spielberg and collaborator Tony Kushner.
A smaller one is his computer whiz dad thinking filmmaking is a hobby and that Sammy needs a more stable career pursuit, but that is a standard trope between artists and scientists. Dano’s quiet demeanor effectively contrasts with Williams’ more flamboyant personality.
Appearing briefly in a slight but showy role that screams supporting actor nomination, Judd Hirsch is an eccentric uncle who used to be in the circus and recognizes a kindred spirit in Sammy.
Young Sammy, who must react to his first film, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” in 1952, is played by standout Mateo Zoryan.
Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is splendid, so is Rick Carter’s production design, and John Williams has produced a fine score.
But, there is just something nagging about a film that I wanted to be great, but is just good.