[Steven Spielberg‘s latest film has already been heavily reviewed, discussed, spoiled and Twitter-poked. Nonetheless spoiler whiners are hereby warned.]
I caught Steven Spielberg‘s The Fabelmans (Universal, 11.11) last night, and like everyone else I was prepared to be mildly disappointed. Because the word on the street is that this 151-minute family film isn’t nearly as great as those suck-uppy Toronto critics said it was. A decent film in many respects, some have said, and highlighted by a few…make that three stand-out scenes, but calm down. So I was ready for a mixed-bag experience, and that’s exactly what I realized it was as I left the theatre around 9 pm.
It’s all right in some respects and very good in terms of those three scenes (Judd Hirsch soliloquy, Gabriel LaBelle‘s teenaged “Sammy” shooting WWII battle scenes in the Arizona desert with verve and ingenuity, Sammy meeting the cantankerous John Ford at the very end) but it’s no Oscar frontrunner, I can tell you that. At best it’s a soft frontrunner because there’s no big consensus film that appears ready to elbow The Fabelmans aside.
It’s basically an overlong, broadly-played family movie about a kid learning the basic filmmaking ropes while his parents edge toward divorce, and it really doesn’t feel natural — for my money it feels too “performed”. Especially in the matter of Michelle Williams‘ Mitzi Fabelman, Samy’s colorful, excitable, piano-playing mom.
Judd Hirsch’s big scene aside, the family saga is…I’m not saying it’s boring but I wouldn’t call it especially rousing either, and Spielberg doesn’t seem to realize this. And he definitely lets it go on too long.
You have to ask “what if The Fabelmans wasn’t a largely autobiographical tale about Spielberg’s childhood…what if it was just a story about some boomer kid who loved movies and wanted to make his own?”
The fact is that without the Spielberg factor, without us knowing that this is the kid who went on to make Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List…if this was just the story of a filmstruck kid, it wouldn’t have been made because it doesn’t have that much in the way of basic magnetism…it’s just the slow story of a marriage that slowly falls apart and about how the oldest son deals with it all.
The Fabelman saga (cowritten by Spielberg and Tony Kushner) is simply not that riveting, and yet it means so much to Spielberg that he doesn’t seem to realize it’s only intermittently engaging to Average Joes. If he had realized this, he would have made it shorter. It should have run two hours max, not two and a half.
I’m not calling it a wholly unsatisfying or a poorly made film, but it’s mostly a so-so experience.
The only parts that I really liked were those that focused on Spielberg shooting and showing stuff. The marital infidelity stuff (Williams cheating on Paul Dano with Seth Rogen‘s “Uncle Benny”) was frankly trying my patience. The anti-Semitic high-school bully scene in the hallway doesn’t really work. And in the 1952 section, Sammy’s parents can’t understand why Sammy crashed his toy train set? They’ve just recently taken him to see The Greatest Show on Earth and they can’t figure it out?
The only scene I really adored was Sammy meeting grumpy old John Ford (David Lynch). The moment when the Searchers music begins playing as Sammy is looking around at the posters on the wall…this is the greatest moment in the film. Ford endlessly lighting the cigar was too much but barking at Sammy about the horizon lines was great.
The fact is that during most of the film I was losing patience. I just didn’t care all that much. I kept asking myself “when is this film going to leave the ground and get airborne”? It finally does at the very end with Ford/Lynch,
Julia Butters, who plays Sammny’s younger sister, isn’t as good here as she was in Quentin Tarantino‘s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood because she’s obliged to perform in a Spielberg vehicle in a Spielbergy fashion.
And that weird Jesus-freak girlfriend Sammy falls in with in Northern California! She was like a farcical sitcom character, like somebody out of Happy Days.
Jordan Ruimy: “We share the exact same sentiment. Literally everything you said about Fabelmans I’m in agreement with. I think it works well at screenings where Spielberg is in attendance to present it but otherwise regular audiences won’t show up for this.”
HE to Ruimy: “I was amazed at the broadness of the performances. Everyone was ‘acting.'”
Ruimy to HE: “Especially Williams.”
HE to Ruimy: “LaBelle’s teenaged Spielberg is always glaring with a single thought and a frozen expression.”
Ruimy to HE: “Judd Hirsch and David Lynch are the highlights but that’s just 20 minutes of an 150-minute movie. I thought first half was much stronger than second, where he discovers filmmaking and makes his little movies.
HE to Ruimy: “Williams was clearly urged to ‘act’ her ass off. She’s not a grounded real-deal human being — she’s a charicature of an eccentric, repressed housewife whom Paul Dano regards as a spirited child who needs to be indulged and given space. Spielberg told his story, all right, but guess what? It’s an in-and-outer. It’s just not hugely interesting. I loved the filmmaking scenes in the desert. Using a baby carriage and wooden planks for tracking shots, etc. The war scenes with the German soldiers. But the anti-Semitic high school bully getting upset because Sammy’s skip day movie depicted him as a God-like figure? He was immediately alarmed and upset because he came off as a gleaming hero figure? Mystifying.”