Steven Spielberg puts out his most personal movie yet, The Fabelmans. Here is our review. This is a typical well-put together film as you would expect from “The Beard”, but it is an otherwise somewhat empty affair.
Coming of age? Check. Artists vs. Engineers? Check. Religious Persecution? A little bit. Family vs…. oh hell.
All of it is there, but none of it ties together into an ultimate theme and that stifles the ability of this film to have any satisfying conclusion.
It tells the story of Steven Spielberg… wait, wait… Sam Fabelman. His father is a well meaning engineer and his mother is a pianist and a housewife. You’d expect the usual “father is over bearing, doesn’t support his son or understand his wife” tropes, but Spielberg goes a different route.
The wife is literally the manic pixie dream girl if you married her and had 4 kids with her. She is in love, however, with her husband’s best friend and co-worker.
Sam is introduced to filmmaking by his mother, but ultimately supported by his father. Even though he tends to call it a hobby, he buys his son plenty of equipment and always shows up at his film “premieres,” which are usually at his school. He’s really a devoted father and husband and is pretty much the hero in this piece as far as I’m concerned.
He has to move his family across the country twice, into nicer and nicer houses. While that’s not ideal for the kids, it was not uncommon back then. The kids seem to mostly adapt. While it’s hardest on Sam going to California, especially thanks to a couple of antisemitic bullies, it certainly doesn’t rise to the types of things we’ve seen in various other biopics in the past.
At one point Judd Hirsch shows up. He’s shown very prominently in the trailers but that’s pretty much all his scenes. I think he did this in the afternoon.
Overall, the movie doesn’t seem to know what its message is. If it’s a coming of age movie, I don’t really see much of an arc for Sam on that. He loves movies and has to deal with a few bullies, but the arc is pretty limp. He has to deal with his mother’s infidelity (so to speak, we’re talking a secret kiss… it was the 50s and 60s) and her leaving the family to be with Seth Rogan. It’s pretty hard to feel sympathy for her but the movie seems to want you to feel that.
His wanting to be a filmmaker doesn’t have really any major obstacles other than his dad gently suggesting that this might not be the best way to make a living, even though he pretty much supports and is involved with Sam’s filmmaking as much as he can be.
It ends with Sam meeting John Ford (David Lynch cameo?!) who gives him some grumpy advice, but really it doesn’t seem to mean much as it’s not like John Ford is referenced very much throughout the movie. It certainly doesn’t seem to be the driving force for Sam.
Overall this movie is less than the sum of its parts. Individual scenes are well scripted and compelling. You feel like you’re watching something very well done, well acted and each scene does its job. But taken as a whole, there just isn’t much there.
If this is another attempt to show fathers are unsupportive, it fails miserably as this father is gentle, kind, and decent and does not deserve any of the crap he eventually has to take. His family split apart, living in a smaller apartment with his son while his ex-wife is enjoying life with his former friend. I don’t feel any sympathy for the wife, who admittedly knows she’s doing wrong and feels tremendous guilt, but not enough to not break up the family.
The antisemitism is mostly just dumb bullies being dumb rather than something that is really oppressive. Overall I just don’t know what Sam was supposed to learn here? If in the trailers it seems like it’s art vs. family then that doesn’t really make sense in the narrative. The wife was not hampered in pursuing her music, but she couldn’t support her family on it. It wasn’t like Dano, the father, didn’t want her doing it. He was very supportive.
Sam doesn’t have to choose between his family and his filmmaking. The wife leaves not because of art but because she just wants to be with someone else. The whole message of this movie is muddled as hell.
Paul Dano does his usual bang-up job of portraying the father. It’s extremely hard for me to feel any sympathy for the wife, even though she’s played beautifully by Michelle Williams. Gabriel Labelle does a fine job as the young Spielberg (who are we kidding) and even Rogan feels like a real adult.
From what I can gather on the intertubes, it appears most of what happens in the movie is exactly what happened in Spielberg’s life. He appears to say that his father was a workaholic that’s never there, but that’s not the impression I got in this movie. He also appears to adore his mother and I can kinda see the movie trying to show that, but since it doesn’t gloss over her choices it’s hard to see her that way.
Ultimately, this is a personal story for Spielberg and I’m sure has a lot of meaning for him. For those of us on the outside without the emotional attachments, I’m not sure it carries the same message he got from his own life.
It’s not that Spielberg can’t direct a story with impeccable competence. It’s the story that lets him down even though it’s his. Your mileage may vary, but I just couldn’t connect with this the way it seemed to want me to.