NOC Review: ‘The Fabelmans’ is Fine

It’s award season, which means every studio is going to tout their maudlin batch of contenders that qualify as “cinema” all over town. Trying to get voters to desperately nominate them for every award, while name-dropping the who’s-who of bait-worthy talent — all while every self-important and self-proclaimed “cinephile” pretends to preach about the difference between true “art” and “garbage” as if they invented the concept of “film” and are the authorities between what “real filmmaking” is and isn’t.

The irony is that frankly, every awards season is filled with the same movies we’ve seen over, and over, and over again, that such audiences will most definitely overpraise, consider revolutionary, and condemn whoever doesn’t agree with them. Enter The Fabelmans.

I’m not in any way saying The Fabelmans is a bad movie. It’s just that I’ve seen it nominated for every award under the sun. I’ve seen it land on virtually every top 10 list from every critic all this year. And I’ve seen it twice myself. And frankly, I just don’t get the appeal. It’s fine. But that’s it. Nothing more.

To put it bluntly, I think it’s quite possibly the most overrated film of the awards season and one of the most ordinary movies to ever grace the filmography of one of Hollywood’s most extraordinary living filmmakers. I can only assume the praise is coming out of the need to say something positive about any film Spielberg does regardless of the fact that the past 10 years of his career will never stack up against the rest of his resume.

But look, this isn’t about other critics and their views about this movie, valid or otherwise. If people see something special in it that I don’t, terrific! But odds are if you clicked on this, and, for whatever reason, have stuck with this review up to now (bless you for that), you want to know my honest opinion of this. And well, more than anything, I honestly just found The Fabelmans broad, bland, and obvious.

Gabriel LaBelle as Sammy Fabelman in The Fabelmans, co-written, produced and directed by Steven Spielberg.

In the event you have not heard about the film, The Fabelmans follows young Steven Spielberg Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) and his family, as he is introduced into the world of motion pictures. As the years pass, we see Sammy dealing with the dissolution of his parents’ marriage, struggles with moving, with bullying and anti-Semitism in high school, his first girlfriend, and his growing obsession with art and filmmaking, and how that passion gets him through it all. Michelle Williams plays Sammy’s mother Mitzi, a free-spirited musician who encourages her son’s art. Paul Dano plays his father Burt, a computer engineer who doesn’t quite understand his passion for film. It also stars Seth Rogan as Burt’s best friend, Bennie and, in a very short, scene stealing role, Judd Hirsch as Sammy’s Uncle Boris.

Yes, of course, this is the autobiography of the legendary filmmaker himself. The names and some details have been changed to protect the innocent. But overall, it’s Spielberg lifting up the curtain and giving us a glimpse into his childhood. And from what I’ve heard, much of this is incredibly accurate. But, and maybe it’s my high expectations talking, I felt like it should have been better than it is.

(from left) Natalie Fabelman (Keeley Karsten), Lisa Fabelman (Sophia Kopera), Mitzi Fabelman (Michelle Williams)and Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) in The Fabelmans, co-written, produced and directed by Steven Spielberg.

Let’s start with Williams’ performance as Mitzi. Being lauded as a strong contender for Best Lead Actress at this year’s Oscars, Williams frankly gives a very cartoonish performance on par with a Liza Minelli impersonator. And it essentially depicts a character that’s, honestly, Spielberg’s version of a manic pixie dream girl. She’s dancing wildly in a nightgown in front of the headlights of a car. She’s driving into tornadoes. And look! She bought a monkey! What a troubled free-spirit she is! Yeah this all might be based on real events that happened in Spielberg’s life (his mother did actually bring home a monkey to combat her depression, for instance), but the way it’s presented makes it feel sillier than it really should be. Nothing about her feels real.

Williams and the way the character is presented are so over-the-top, any semblance of subtlety about this complex figure are completely gone. We know she’s depressed, and stuck in a loveless marriage. But when the film is begging you to feel sorry for her or to forgive her by going to the extremes to portray her as this quirky, sprite-like individual, it’s kind of a turn off. I recognize maybe that’s how Spielberg saw his mother in real life. But I just couldn’t buy into her, because she really clashed with everything else.

The melodrama doesn’t really stop there, though. While, given the current state of the world, we do need movies that speak out against anti-Semitism, the way it’s depicted in The Fabelmans seems incredibly soapy and cliched. To me, watching Sammy Fabelman getting punched in school or harassed by other students during a volleyball game should evoke sympathy. But it honestly felt like I was watching scenes from a high school teen drama like The OC rather than a Spielberg movie.

Even the hysterical over-the-top Jesus scenes with Sammy’s girlfriend trying to convert him to Christianity came across incredibly goofy. Which is honestly nothing I ever expected to see from one of the world’s greatest directors. Subtlety in how a victim perseveres and the literal struggles they endure is lacking from any of these scenes, and once more I’m a bit shocked how contrived it all felt. I know Spielberg went through these things as a child, growing up. Maybe this is all really what happened. But none of it felt real to me. And that really comes down to making me feel and identify with how Sammy feels rather than flat out telling me how he’s feeling and how I’m supposed to feel, which is what these scenes came across.

(from left) Monica Sherwood (Chloe East) and Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) in The Fabelmans, co-written, produced and directed by Steven Spielberg.

As for other performances in the film, such as Dano’s or Rogan’s, they’re just very flat. Rogan is playing serious Rogan. Dano is a bit more successful playing a more subtle character than we’re used to with him. But I wouldn’t call his performance groundbreaking, or among the best in his personal full body of work. They do their job as the stiff and stern engineer father and his goofy, somewhat backstabbing best friend.

I know it sounds like I’m outright trashing this movie. And I’m not. I want to make it clear that I liked it fine. It’s a perfectly okay movie. At least, unlike a movie like Babylon, The Fabelmans is actually coherent. Maybe too straightforward for its own good. And while I’ll give Babylon points for trying something different, at least Fabelmans is cohesive and understands what it is. The story is compelling enough the first time you watch it, but upon a second viewing I found myself caring a lot less, and noticing the melodrama.

But Spielberg is going to do what he does best, which is hold your attention. And there’s nothing overtly offensive about anything he puts to screen. It’s a very safe Oscar-bait movie. And I’m conflicted because I love Spielberg, but it’s hard for me to feel for the plights of one of the most successful, legendary directors in history, which is what this movie essentially is. Now granted Spielberg isn’t asking for our pity. He’s just showing us what he lived through. But it’s all very average and ordinary, which is precisely my problem with this film.

(from left) Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) and Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch) in The Fabelmans, co-written, produced and directed by Steven Spielberg.

Are there moments of brilliance? Of course there are. The scene with Hirsch’s Boris is probably one of the best acted moments in a movie this year. And the struggles of choosing between art, love, and family — the central thesis of this film — are explored perfectly in that scene alone.

The final scene featuring David Lynch as John Ford is also a complete delight. It’s funny, biting, and true. And those who followed Spielberg’s life and career closely will watch out for all the hallmarks of his life to appear like Easter eggs in an MCU movie. And the score by John Williams is wonderful (sad it’ll be the second to last time we hear new music from him before he retires). The cinematography by Janusz Kaminski is also playful and well done.

Arguably, however, the best scene is the one where Sammy confronts Mitzi about her secret relationship with Bennie. It’s an incredibly tragic moment, and a particularly well done one, even if Williams once again goes way too broad with her breakdown. But it’s probably the most heart wrenching moment in the movie because it’s the moment Sammy decides to give up filmmaking. The scene was perfect, giving you the exact pathos you needed for the situation to feel sympathy for the characters involved without explicitly battering you over the head with what each character is thinking or feeling.

Gabriel LaBelle as Sammy Fabelman in The Fabelmans, co-written, produced and directed by Steven Spielberg.

And a lot of that, and much of the film’s strengths, can be attributed to the terrific performance from breakout star LaBelle. In a film featuring veteran actors like Williams, Dano, and Rogan, LaBelle is able to hold his own and steal scenes from everyone except Hirsch. Despite the very exaggerated nature of the execution of the scenes he’s in, LaBelle plays things a lot more subtle than his co-stars, bringing a level of emotional complexity to Sammy that just doesn’t really exist in most of the other characters in the film.

There’s another scene in particular where Sammy is filming a war movie, and is giving direction to one of his actors, that is particularly affecting because LaBelle’s delivery in that moment brings a level of earned catharsis to the character as he breaks down behind the camera. And that’s the type of layered nuance he brings to the role for the full duration of his on-screen performance. It’s one of the film’s major successes.

At the end of the day, it’s the strengths of LaBelle’s and Hirsch’s performances, along with some of the well done technical aspects of the film, such as the score and cinematography, that really stand out in a movie that simply doesn’t stand out among every would-be Oscar nominee ever in the history of would-be Oscar nominees. And the overtly melodramatic nature of the picture, from Williams’ performance to the stagey nature of many scenes and situations, is somewhat slightly disappointing given that this is a movie that’s about someone’s real life, written and directed by that very someone.

Spielberg is a genius and nothing will ever take that title away from him. But just because his legacy is amazing, that’s honestly no reason for anyone to overpraise a movie that just won’t hold up against the rest of his legendary filmography. When I see better executed explorations of his life in films like E.T. and Catch Me If You Can than his own semi-autobiography that speaks rather poorly about said semi-autobiography, doesn’t it? In short, The Fabelmans is fine. It’s not offensively bad. Nor is it extraordinary or worthy of the praise it’s received and will receive in the coming weeks. It’s just simply there, and nothing else.

Go watch a documentary about Spielberg instead. At least that will feel a lot more real.

Overall Score: B

The Fabelmans is now playing in theaters everywhere.