The only thing I hate more than a wealthy White man’s personal coming-of-age story is a movie about how cool movies are. “The Fabelmans” is both. Lucky me. Considering that Steven Spielberg’s fictionalized boyhood biography already has an eyeroll-worthy title, they should have just gone with “Ryan Syrek: This Is Absolutely Not for You.” To be very clear though, I’m glad it’s for others.
Within the last 10 days, the former president broke bread with an outright Nazi, and Kanye West straight-up stanned Hitler in an interview with Alex “IOU Billions” Jones. Neat. A heartfelt film about a Jewish family doesn’t make any of that unspeakably dangerous nonsense better. Still, here’s hoping the movie can be some measure of an emotional salve for those repeatedly wounded by ignorant hatred and a covert, artistic humanizing of a people brutally “othered” for millennia. I’m in a weird, overlapping spot of being really, truly thrilled that the film exists for these reasons and really, truly just despising most of the film itself.
Because, at its core, “The Fabelmans” is just another navel-gazing, nostalgic bit of self-appreciation and public self-therapy. The self-appreciation part is how young Sam Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) is a magical artist blessed with the best of his computer genius father, Burt (Paul Dano), and his pianist mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams). The self-therapy part is Spielberg working through his parents’ divorce on the big screen. You made “Jaws,” dude, just pay for a therapist. That is something he has said in interviews he has never done. It shows, buddy!
Speaking of interviews, our boy Stevie S has been on the scene for like 50 years. Fans interested in how the bespectacled filmmaker found his way to a celluloid obsession already had a very large base of existing information. The pivotal moment depicted in “The Fabelmans” comes when Sam sees a movie when he is young, and it really gets to him. Wow. What a unique and fascinating path to cinema. Glad we get to spend 2.5 hours unpacking this.
In some ways, the film being framed around Sam’s career is positively hilarious. Because around him is a sensationally heartbreaking marital implosion. Burt and Mitzi love one another but are not in love with one another, at least not equally. Because Sam’s perspective is centered, the whole thing feels like when Kate Beckinsale wept about her romantic status in “Pearl Harbor.” Her marital status was definitely the most important thing happening at that point in time.
Williams is sensational as Mitzi and should be given Renée Zellweger’s most recent Oscar. Actually, that particular statuette should be turned into a rotating award, like a Fantasy Football trophy, given to the most recent best Judy Garland or Judy Garland-adjacent performance. Dano is fine as the understated Burt, the kind of sad sack Eisenhower-era father who has been eulogized in fiction countless times. Their disintegrating marriage, torn asunder against the will of both parties, should have been the entire focus. Oddly, as much as Judaism is a vital component of the film, not a peep is mentioned about the spiritual or religious implications of the collapsing union. That’s the sort of thing that would have been meaningfully better to work through but wouldn’t have put Sam’s cinematic destiny in focus.
There’s more to not like, from the indulgent pacing to the cliched high-school sequence that ends on prom night. It all feels as unoriginal as it is unnecessary. For many, separating the artist from the art is the only way virtually any art can be pleasurably consumed. This is the artist screaming “Over my dead body!” I sincerely thought there may be a post-credits scene where Sam gets introduced to loosely fictional versions of George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola, launching the “70s Directors Universe” nobody has demanded.
As much as legendary directors from that era have dismissed comic book movies as worthless piffle, I’d love to hear their justification for why sitting through a big-budget reenactment of someone else’s home movies is inherently more worthwhile. So, just to reiterate, I am genuinely elated for those moved by “The Fabelmans.” I was not.
Grade = D
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Valerie Kalfrin from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists says “‘The Fabelmans’ could easily be a love letter to cinema, yet Spielberg has a more human scale in mind. At its heart, ‘The Fabelmans’ isn’t about the films Sammy makes but the people who help him embrace his talent and the emotional power he discovers through images that marry art and science—qualities each of them loved in life.”
Sherin Nicole of Idobi.com says “‘The Fabelmans’ is a film you can hold in cupped hands, like water reflecting moonlight, just long enough to know it was real. This harmony of story, visuals, and sentiment makes ‘The Fabelmans’ a weaver of spells; it’s just so lovely and funny and frustrating in its candor; so relatable in its openness.”
Danielle Solzman from Solzy at the Movies says “Broken family issues notwithstanding, Judaism is up front and center during the film. If you’re Jewish, you’re bound to get some big laughs during some of the moments here. I know that I certainly had to restrain my laughter more than a few times. If you’ve ever been Jewish in December, you should know what I mean!”