The Fabelmans (2022)

‘Fabelmans’ is a weak spiel on Spielberg

We’d all love to meet Steven Spielberg and spend time picking his ingenious brain. But would you want to accompany him to his shrink and be subjected to a 150-minute session wherein he discusses his various “mommy issues?” If your answer is, yes! By all means, purchase a ticket to “The Fabelmans,” and play analyst as Spielberg reposes on his cinematic couch and relives his bittersweet youth.

Yes, there are riveting moments, such as the first time his surrogate, Sammy Fabelman, picks up an 8-mm camera and reenacts the famous train crash scene from 1952’s “The Greatest Show on Earth” by utilizing his brand-new model railroad set. Or, the moment he discovers his mother isn’t the saintly woman he believed her to be. But too much of “The Fabelmans” is like all of our memories: jumbled, blurry and faded over time. To us, they encapsulate who we are and where we come from.

But to anyone else, even your kids and spouse, hearing them recounted can be a bit trying, an experience to endure more than cherish. Even Spielberg’s most devout fans will find this outpouring bumpy at best, particularly since he’s pretty much revisiting themes explored in “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Subjects such as abandonment, separation and unfounded fears of the “other.”

In essence, “The Fabelmans,” a movie memoir he wrote with close pal and frequent collaborator, Tony Kushner, is a greatest-hits about the early days. If it were The Beatles, it would be the Hamburg years. For Sammy, played first by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord and later by sensational newcomer – and Spielberg doppelganger – Gabriel LaBelle, it’s a chronicle of how he grew into a filmmaker and a man, and all the joy and hurt encompassing that evolution. In other words, your standard coming-of-age tale in which childhood optimism dissolves into disillusionment before settling into stark reality. Basically, it’s the arc of EVERY Spielberg movie.

Others will tell you this one is “different,” more personal; I would argue it’s not. He isn’t revealing anything we didn’t already know. What he IS doing is attempting to dazzle us with watercolor splashes of the events that “made” him an artist. Good for him; not for us. It’s oftentimes a slog, surprising since his previous collaborations with Kushner – “Munich,” “Lincoln” and “West Side Story” – are in my opinion the three best movies of Spielberg’s career. Perhaps that’s why I was so bitterly disappointed in the lazy and superficial approach so much of “The Fabelmans” takes in tracing the birth of a wunderkind.

He repeatedly pulls his punches. The best example is Sammy’s first brush with Antisemitism. First, was he really almost 18 when he first discovered such a thing existed? But far worse is the failure by Spielberg and Kushner to profoundly express the damage it does to your psyche, your trust in others, when you’re the target of so much unwarranted hatred. Sammy merely appears puzzled and confused. Same situation when he meets a “nice” Christian girl (Chloe East) who’s mainly attracted to him because he’s a handsome stand-in for that other “cute Jewish boy,” Jesus.

Shouldn’t he be just a little offended, despite the sexual benefits that representation affords him?

No, Sammy reserves the majority of his wrath for his flighty mother, Mitzi (an over-the-top Michelle Williams), a grand pianist who sacrificed her dreams of a musical career to raise four kids she bore to her wonkish, computer-pioneer husband, Burt (a superb Paul Dano). You see, Sammy discovers a dark secret about Mom while editing footage he shot during a family camping trip. (Given how prominent the indiscretion features in the frame, you wonder how it escaped Sammy during filming.) The “shocking” reveal also involves the family’s honorary Uncle Bennie (a very-solid Seth Rogen), a guy who’s not quite the sad sack he initially appears. He’s Dad’s best bud and collaborator. But is he loyal?

LaBelle is at his best in depicting the understandable bitterness and hurt endured by a boy whose deep adoration of his mother is pierced by betrayal. It’s great stuff, particularly when he lets Mom know what he knows, not through words, but through film. Yes, this experience leaves Sammy jaded, but it also proves to be a eureka moment, as he discovers the emotional power his filmmaking holds over others.

If anything, the Fabelmans are more annoying than affecting. No more so than when Judd Hirsch pops in for an ill-advised cameo as Sammy’s gibberish-spewing Great Uncle Boris. Exactly what the scene is meant to represent, or express, I couldn’t say. Hirsch is so manic and unrestrained that I could barely understand what he was saying. Something about putting his head between the jaws of a lion, and that the life of an artist is inherently lonely.


There are equally disjointed digressions in Sammy’s clashes with a couple of bullies and his first instance of “coaching” a dim-witted actor in one of the many war films he shoots with his Boy Scout pals in the Phoenix desert. OK, it’s fun watching Sammy be resourceful with what he has to work with (a trait he inherits from Dad), and then turn it into something beautiful and entertaining for the masses (thanks, Mom!). The point, I guess, is that we’re all a product of our parents and their genetic makeup. But the film seems to suggest this is a “special” gift bestowed only upon Sammy.

It helps that the picture is photographed by Spielberg regular, Janusz Kaminski, and scored by another old pal, John Williams. But too much of “The Fabelmans” feels stale, over-thought and under-cooked. The best way to describe the final output requires borrowing the sage advice offered by Sammy’s hero, the legendary director John Ford (a hilarious David Lynch). He cautions the boy, then a student at UCLA, to always place the horizon at the top or the bottom of a frame, never in the middle. “The middle is boring,” he proclaims. With “The Fabelmans,” Spielberg, alas, ignores that counsel and shoots straight down the center, never wavering. And true to the old man’s words, it’s tedious.

Movie review

The Fabelmans

Rated: PG-13 for some strong language, drug use, brief violence and thematic elements

Cast: Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen and Gabriel LaBelle

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writers: Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner

Runtime: 151 minutes

Grade: C

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