The Fabelmans (2022)
The Fabelmans (2022)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 31 min.

Release Date: November 23rd, 2022 MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: Steven Spielberg Actors: Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Gabriel LaBelle, Judd Hirsch, Keeley Karsten, Julia Butters, Chloe East, Isabelle Kusman, Sam Rechner

 


 

“D

reams are scary!” Parents Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi Fabelman (Michelle Williams) coax their young son Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) to see a movie in the theater for the first time in New Jersey in 1952. Although he was excited for the outing all week, he’s having last-minute second-thoughts. But when he’s finally introduced to the big screen to see “The Greatest Show on Earth” (a slog of a film, despite it winning the Oscar for Best Picture), he’s absolutely transfixed, rendered utterly speechless at the spectacle moments, such as a calamitous train derailment.

It’s no secret – though it might be something of a mystery for unaware audiences – that “The Fabelmans” is a semi-autobiographical account of writer/director/producer Steven Spielberg’s own upbringing. And so, the initial sequences do shed some light onto a burgeoning filmmaker’s early obsessions, as the boy pleads for a train set so that he can recreate his own crashes, which he films for his repeated entertainment, before soon moving on to capturing his sisters in various, thrilling enactments, ranging from a bloodthirsty tooth-pulling to toilet-paper mummies to the screaming victims of a skeleton creature in a closet. Curiously, though the family is high-spirited and fun-loving, somewhat reminiscent of the likable characters from “Belfast,” these mini episodes don’t seem to contribute much to Sammy’s shift into a teenager.

“Dad, can you stop calling it a hobby?” Mundane routines provide potential for mild adventures as the family moves to Arizona and then to California, with Sammy (now portrayed by Gabriel LaBelle) continuing to craft steadily more elaborate films, boasting better costumes and props and even primitive special effects. But despite the cheerful, comedic group of people (whose festiveness is easy enough to enjoy), the story doesn’t feel like it’s heading in any specific direction; instead, it’s content to merely chronicle and observe some transformative events in the youth’s life, none of which specifically shape Sammy as the successful auteur after which he’s designed. A commonplace familial tragedy or two pop up to disrupt the general gaiety, as well as the arrival of an eccentric persona here and there, but little of this production comes across as creative exaggeration; it’s all so plain and uneventful, even when Sammy must contend with thoughts of betrayal and related disruptions to the family unit he takes for granted. It’s here that emotional moments arrive, revealing Williams’ stellar chops (her performance is the only aspect to give this undertaking any dramatic weight), yet this only leads to wanting to see more of her character – and wondering why the focus is on Sammy, whose coming-of-age formula is so banal. His endeavors are terribly far from the cinematic material of “Licorice Pizza.”

Transitioning into high school only brings further cliches – some of which are riling (such as bullying and antisemitism) and some of which are cute and funny (such as first love, replete with awkward sexuality). Even the sequences that involve filmmaking once again don’t seem to lend to any notable future; though it clearly nods to “Cinema Paradiso,” sans the comparably potent revelations, Sammy’s formative years of experimenting with putting together motion pictures aren’t emblematic of any recognizable works. How great would it have been if he had dealt with a shark sighting at his high school’s beachside skip day? The aimless, structureless journey (save for touching upon adolescent milestones) doesn’t go far enough in the timeline to reach a point of evident inspiration – even though it meanders for an interminable duration, refusing to stop when it probably should have, threatening to make everything outside of family disfunction a trivial ordeal. In the end, it’s intermittently sweet and nostalgic, but peculiarly insignificant; rather than using its basis on Spielberg’s childhood to exhibit junctures that might have cultivated the seeds of “Duel,” “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” or others, audiences are left only with a pleasant yet obvious vanity project of conspicuous inconsequence.

– Mike Massie

  • 5/10