Steven Spielberg has made nearly every type of movie. Name a genre or narrative arc and Spielberg has left his fingerprints on it, and almost certainly in a positive way. He’s redefined the blockbuster mold with hits like “Jaws” and “Jurassic Park” (you ever heard of them?) and reconstructed tales that have circulated culture for decades, such as “War of the Worlds” and last year’s “West Side Story.” There comes a point when you have to wonder whether he’s running out of ideas or if he can keep up his quick release schedule. Regardless of this chatter, Steven Spielberg manages to crank one of these out nearly year after year, and “The Fabelmans” proves he may have another few in him.
And frankly, it would be foolish to bet against the man that’s reshaped pop culture consistently for the better part of half a century, but I was honestly quite dubious of Spielberg following in the path of his close contemporaries. The microgenre that’s been flooded the most by lauded filmmakers over the last few years is the semi-autobiographical one, and since Spielberg has been one to normally set the new boundaries for filmmaking, I was hesitant to expect top notch work from a director following a trend rather than starting one himself.
Combine that with a high bar to meet due to Paul Thomas Anderson’s excellent “Licorice Pizza” last year (finishing 2021 as my number one rated film) and James Gray’s “Armageddon Time” (threatening to due the same thing in 2022), I was cautiously optimistic about Steven Spielberg’s chances at delivering another home run film ready to compete for Oscars a whopping three months from now.
But luckily enough, Spielberg mostly comes through with “The Fabelmans” – a film that is so entrenched in being a love letter to the moving image that it’s nearly impossible not to be moved by its endearing and rapturous tone. Spielberg makes it a point to show you that he doesn’t just make films better than his peers, he loves them more than they do too.
It’s also a fragile and shockingly honest ode to his parents because “The Fabelmans” is also a divorce film. The splitting of Spielberg’s parents that cause the young genius to further ensnarl himself into his own hobbies is on full display in the film, and Steven Spielberg is not shy at showing the grim and ugly moments that eventually mounted towards his mother (played by the emotionally heart-shattering Michelle Williams) and his father (Paul Dano in an incredibly soft-spoken, strong minded performance) moving apart.
At every turn of “The Fabelmans,” there’s something to gawk at or consume. The film quickly establishes young Sam Fabelman as a film lover and a natural at creating motion pictures. It shifts from being a family drama to being a school drama, then to a romance film and character portrait. Needless to say, there’s a lot going on in “The Fabelmans.” It’s not always in tune with each other, but it always has something to say. And in the wrong hands, the film could plummet real quickly, but with Spielberg and Gabriel LaBelle (who plays Sam for the majority of its runtime), it pulls off a tricky balancing act by the time it wraps up.
Like many of Spielberg’s commendable efforts (which is where I put this one – to say it’s one of his best films means it has to go up against a few of the medium’s canonical efforts, no matter what Sight & Sound has to say about it), there are still a few holdups and speedbumps along the way. A film aiming to tackle many of the outside forces that helped Steven Spielberg get to where he is today, “The Fabelmans” struggles to maintain the momentum throughout its indulgent 151-minute runtime.
Once the film transitions towards Sam’s time in high school in Northern California, and “The Fabelmans” becomes a teenager drama, it has the same hollowing feel that plagued “West Side Story” last year. The stylish framing can’t resurrect a set of characters that feel completely one-note and inauthentic. In a way, this part of “The Fabelmans” feels like a satire of films that generally partake in this narrative structure. The final confrontation between Sam and his bullying classmates Logan and Chad in the high school hallway is one of the messier scenes Spielberg has put in a film in quite some time. It feels as if it attempts to tie each storyline into a bow, but it’s just loud noise.
Even with some uneven storytelling and a few shallow points, “The Fabelmans” is still quite the achievement. Paul Dano and Michelle Williams will both deservedly get Oscar looks (even with the so-called “category fraud” claims by pundits about Williams running as lead actress – I would argue she’s the main performer given that Sam is portrayed by multiple kid actors at the beginning of the film), and even Seth Rogen doesn’t quite have enough screen time to completely pull you out of it.
“The Fabelmans” is a movie. It’s an overabundance of ideas and stories. They don’t always hit, but there’s enough that digs deep into the life of Steven Spielberg and helps portray him as more than just a mega-filmmaker. Combined with some wonderful technical achievements (the final 15 minutes are just awe-inspiring and prove in themselves that Spielberg still has it) and some top tier performances, “The Fabelmans” is a deserving Oscar season contender and one that rewards you for your patience.
“The Fabelmans” is available to rent and buy on VOD today!
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