The Film Buffa: ‘The Fabelmans’ review

Steven Spielberg making a movie about his childhood and the emotions and events that led to him being a legendary filmmaker sounds like a movie that makes itself. But sometimes, the sweet spot can be lined up on the cinema GPS and still find a way to miss the mark. The biggest question that should leave viewers ruminating after leaving his latest will be whether or not the film touched greatness… or was decent?

First off, I don’t think he knows how to make a bad movie, but he doesn’t always hit the bullseye. While everyone and their Oscar-voting mother were on their hands and knees over his “West Side Story” remake last year, I pondered the need for its existence. “War Horse” aimed high, but was one of his more forgettable efforts. Movies like “The Post” and “Munich” are masterpieces in their own right, including “Catch Me If You Can.” Those films sizzled with purpose, didn’t miss a beat, and are very rewatchable.

“The Fabelmans” is a movie I will only watch once. That was enough for Spielberg’s latest, which chronicles young Steve (Sammy in this case, played by Gabriel LaBelle) as he overcomes a turbulent marriage between his opposites-attract parents (Paul Dano and Michelle Williams), a tricky relationship with his Uncle Benny (Seth Rogen), and the normal rigors of school and coming-of-age periods. Young Sammy is bullied at school and struggles with dating due to his religion and upbringing, but that can’t stop his undying urge to create films.

Tony Kushner and Spielberg’s screenplay spends a lot of time on the perils of the relationship and connection between Sammy’s parents, which gives Dano and Williams lots of dramatic runway to play with. But their portrayals come off as overwrought; performances that try too hard and don’t land as powerfully.

Williams doesn’t exactly put in harrowing “Amy Adams in Hillbilly Elegy” work, but it’s not her best work either. There’s two speeds for Spielberg’s mother in the film: Crying profusely or acting crazy. Dano’s dad borders on stern vulnerability, but the movie’s excessive time with them didn’t increase the enjoyment of their work. Their castings are a little too much on the nose, which robs some of the unexpected emotions in their work.

This is my long-winded way of saying their performances, like a good portion of the movie, came off too much like a movie or fable. In other words, forced or at least force-fed down our throat. That was a problem I had with “West Side Story,” a film that checked boxes without making any real dent that the original didn’t already hit. If that doesn’t make sense, just keep reading.

The film finds magic when Judd Hirsch shows up as the curmudgeon-like yet soulful uncle, importing advice into Sammy and giving the movie some much-needed life. It’s like he walked in from a more fun and improv-infused environment. Jeannie Berlin’s Fabelman relative also carries some spicy kick as the old lady who doesn’t take any shit, including Rogen’s shifty friend of the family who is called Uncle for some reason. Those two actors give the movie something fresh, or not just a standard biopic checklist.

Spielberg made a nice little fable about his life, but there are zero chances taken and little urgency to the film. LaBelle does his best to inhabit the young man, but the role swallows him up in certain scenes and just leaves him standing idle in others. It’s not like he’s uniquely good or bad here; like last year’s Spielberg movie lead, Ansel Elgort, LaBelle doesn’t come off as owning that character.

The cinematography and overall aesthetic of the film is decent enough, but the John Williams score sounds recycled from his last six jobs working Spielberg films. The film is too long, coming in at a laborious 150 minutes. You could have taken out a lot of the useless bully subplots and romantic entanglements. Better yet, they could have focused more of the story on him making movies and not the marital trouble at home. Suffice to say, the editing and decisions on what to leave in made this Oscar darling and perennial top contender more bloated than it had to be.

Is it worth seeing? Yes and no. I don’t think there’s a real urgency to most of it, but it’ll be hard to judge the upcoming awards circuit without at least popping the hood on “The Fabelmans,” a movie that means well yet doesn’t make much of an impact. The trailer showed audiences a tease of a completely different movie, one filled with wondrous imagery and just enough conflict. The actual product is not as good as the teaser. The casual movie fan can wait on this one.

It turns out that Spielberg’s life story isn’t as riveting as his other movies. He didn’t miss the net completely, but the goaltender easily stopped the film from being a real winner.

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