As disappointed as I was to hear Quentin Tarantino announce his intended retirement from filmmaking due to beliefs that directors often begin to slip in the twilight of their careers, each new Steven Spielberg film seems to confirm this as a true statement for me. Spielberg is still a highly competent filmmaker who releases polished products, but nothing in the last two decades comes anywhere close to the first two decades of his career as a director. Perhaps it is not fair to compare The Fabelmans to Jaws or Schindler’s List, but I would be disappointed even if merely judging Spielberg’s latest on its own merits alone. Despite all of the praise that has been thrown at The Fabelmans by critics, I found myself in the minority of people unimpressed with the screenplay supposedly based on Spielberg’s own adolescent experiences.
Although inspired by Spielberg’s journey to becoming a filmmaker, the screenplay co-written by Tony Kushner is often far more preoccupied with family dysfunction in the Fabelman household. While teenager Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) decides he wants to be a filmmaker, he has tunnel vision about his creative process, which initially distracts him from the problems in his family. There is the usual family drama that comes with the death of older family members, as well as the conflict between his creative pianist mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and his logic-driven computer engineer father Burt (Paul Dano). This relationship is further complicated by the looming presence of their family friend, Bennie Loewy (Seth Rogen).
While the family issues are somewhat relatable, they aren’t the character-defining moments of trauma that the screenplay attempts to make them out to be. Sammy spends far too much time bemoaning the fact that his father calls filmmaking a hobby, as if this is evidence of a crippling lack of support. In reality, although Burt is practical and realistic in his thinking, he also supports his son financially at every turn and shows up to praise each of the films made. It is hard to see this and feel bad for poor old young Spielberg. As far as the relationship issues between Mitzi and Burt, there are far more volatile depictions of marital problems, which make the scenes of drama in The Fabelmans feel a little uneventful compared to how significant the screenplay tries to make them seem. In other words, if this was the worst that Spielberg had to deal with in terms of adversity, he should be thanking his parents rather than making a movie about the struggles he faced.
The areas that the film thrive are the moments of creative low budget filmmaking, and these are also the bits likely to interest anyone watching this with knowledge that it is based on Spielberg’s youth. Seeing the genres Spielberg would later make major motion pictures in tackled as ultra-low budget films is fascinating, though it doesn’t take up nearly as much of the screen time as the family drama, unfortunately. The entire structure of the film is completely episodic, moving from section to section without enough of a connection between each to feel like the narrative has unity. Part of the problem is that supporting characters are often given priority over the protagonist, only to then bounce back to Sammy’s story in a way that feels scattered.
Performances have inevitably come up in discussion, as The Fabelmans is clearly a year-end awards contender, if only because of the filmmaker attached. Some of these performances are great. While I didn’t find Sammy a relatable enough character, LaBelle is charming enough in the role. Paul Dano is heartbreakingly good, despite his character being tossed to the side in favor of Michelle Williams giving an exaggerated and scenery-chewing performance that was more grating than anything I expected from her. I would rather see Williams play Marilyn Monroe again rather than rewatch this performance. Seth Rogen is just here to prove he can play a dramatic role, only to provide some of the film’s only comedic relief. Judd Hirsch appears to steal one scene before vanishing.
The filmmaking is predictably effective in The Fabelmans, but it is also disappointingly safe. There are no real surprises save the self-referential final shot, which is a bit too on-the-nose. In a year where we had the creativity of Everything Everywhere All at Once, The Fabelmans just feels generic. Remove Spielberg’s influence and I can’t imagine this would even have made an impact.
The 4K Ultra High Definition release does showcase the polished filmmaking style of one of a director who is clearly Hollywood royalty. If I was more impressed with the narrative itself, this would be easier to praise. But for those who like the film more than I do, I’m sure this polished presentation will be appreciated. It looks especially good during the sequences where Sammy is creating his cinematic masterpieces, along with some of the questionable moments in the narrative like the awkward camping trip and sudden storm warning.
The 4K release also comes with a Blu-ray copy and a digital code for a third way to view the film. The special features are included on both the 4K and Blu-ray discs, though they are surprisingly sparce for such a highly promoted film. There are three featurettes; “The Fabelmans: A Personal Journey,” “Family Dynamics,” and “Crafting the World of The Fabelmans.”
Entertainment Value: 7/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 7/10
Historical Significance: 5/10
Special Features: 5/10