My relationship with the work of Steven Spielberg has been a complicated one over the last decade or so. He’s undeniably one of the greatest creative and visionary minds in cinema history, harnessing the pure magic of movies while actively coming up with new tricks at every turn. Over the course of nearly five decades, his storied career has had some fairly distinct phases. In the 70s and 80s, he was all about spectacle, practically inventing the summer blockbuster. In the 90s, he started to pivot more to prestige fare, showing the world that he can tell enduring stories on a grand scale while still filling auditoriums with amazing popcorn flicks. By the early 2000s, he started to slip a little bit, giving us some genuinely fun films like Catch Me if You Can and The Terminal, but also getting way too into the weeds with aliens when it comes to projects like A.I., the awful War of the Worlds remake, and the absolutely disgusting Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
But since 2011, there’s basically been only one aspect of Spielberg’s output, and that’s shameless, obvious Oscar bait. He’s directed nine films over that span, and fully two thirds of them were released late in the year with the sole objective of accumulating hardware: War Horse, Lincoln, Bridge of Spies, The Post, the West Side Story remake, and now, The Fabelmans. Now, that doesn’t mean these are bad movies. In fact, apart from War Horse (which I understood, but it just did nothing for me for about 90% of the runtime), there’s a lot to enjoy about all of those that came before. But as I’ve said numerous times, artistic intent has to be taken into account, and it’s pretty clear what Spielberg’s really going for here, even if it turns out to be a masterpiece. For the record, of the other three movies he’s put out in the last 11 years, only The BFG failed to receive a nod from the Academy, with The Adventures of Tintin and Ready Player One also getting token nominations in specialized fields.
Bearing all this in mind, because Spielberg very obviously wants this film on everyone’s minds when they’re filling out their ballots, it must be held to something of a higher standard than any other movie he’d otherwise release during the year. He’s put this out with all the pomp and circumstance (not to mention heavy marketing and campaigning already in progress) of a Best Picture hopeful, including using footage from a previous Best Picture winner as the catalyst for the story itself, so I will judge it on those terms. I will admit I was a bit skeptical going in, but that’s because I’m more cynical than most, and when it comes to the Oscars — the highest honor in all of cinema — I want any candidate to succeed on its own merit, not because the right executives bribed the right voters and sold the product as being more than it actually is.
All this is to say that despite my initial misgivings, I really did enjoy this picture for the most part. There are flaws, which I’ll get out of the way in a minute, but on the whole, this is a worthy project that can stand on its own without disingenuous marketing ploys. Is it truly Best Picture material? I’d say no. With just over a month left in the year, I’ve already seen close to 40 films that I feel are better. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad product, or that it doesn’t have superlative elements deserving of consideration. There are some really great parts and some that come up short, though the good stuff does outweigh the bad on balance. This is a movie that should be seen, but not necessarily one that should be fawned over like it’s the second coming of Cinema Paradiso.
So let’s dispense with the subpar aspects first, because I do want to focus more on the stuff that really works. First and foremost, a lot has been made of Michelle Williams as Mitzi Fabelman, the analog for Steven Spielberg’s mother, with many saying this should be the role that finally lands her an Oscar. Initially it was theorized that she’d be going for Best Supporting Actress, but she and the studio have made it clear that she will campaign for Best Actress.
I’ll say this now. If she wins, I will be irate. This is a nothing performance. It’s not terrible by any means, but it’s merely competent. And given that this is Michelle Williams, it’s surprisingly pedestrian. The bulk of her adult life has been spent playing some sort of aggrieved mother character. It’s the pinnacle of the modern typecast, even more so than Dwayne Johnson playing muscular men. But despite the well-worn territory she’s covering here, she doesn’t really add anything to the variations of this role she’s played in the past. She’s just the sainted mom of Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) for about the first half of the film, and then afterwards she shows signs of mental illness and anguish, but again, not in any way we haven’t seen dozens of times before, and done much better. The film itself deifies her to an almost nauseating degree, but there’s nothing in Williams’ performance that warrants it. We’re just supposed to take it at face value, and I guess maybe smile when she tries to affect a voice akin to Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl.
This ties in to the second major fault, which is the script by Tony Kushner and Spielberg, the latter taking on a rare writing credit. There are two big problems here. The first relates to Mitzi, who does eventually do something, and it’s not good. I won’t spoil anything, but there are character turns written in that at least advance the plot, even though she’s not really developed in any meaningful way. But when she commits her sins, the script pulls its punches, as if it’s afraid to actually criticize her, even when any objective person would say she’s clearly in the wrong.
It reminded me of an analogy Al Franken often used in his political commentary before he became a Senator. In the wake of 9/11, right-wing politicians used patriotism as a weapon, spinning any criticism of George W. Bush or his policies as meaning those finding fault just simply didn’t love America. Franken fought back against that generalization by comparing liberals and conservatives within that framework. Liberals, he said, love America like an adult loves another adult, by recognizing flaws and shortcomings, while still being committed to working on them and improving things, and embracing the overall goodness. Conservatives, on the other hand, love America like a five-year-old loves his mother. Mommy is good, mommy is perfect, and if you say anything bad about mommy, then you must HATE mommy. That’s the tone Spielberg and Kushner set with just about every scene involving Mitzi. Even when she’s wrong, she is not to be questioned for fear of slandering her good name. And sadly, this extends to husband Burt (Paul Dano), who is an example of the “adult” type of love, accepting her warts and all and trying to make life better for her even when it’s at his personal expense, and yet he’s treated as the closest thing to a villain for most of the proceedings, because God forbid we have a movie where a teenager actually likes their dad.
Long story short, Michelle Williams doesn’t deserve a nomination, much less a win. One of the more tired traditions of the Oscars is that far too often the Best Actress nominees come down to wife and/or mother characters. I wish there was more depth to the category, but until that happens, if the Academy is dead set on giving the award to a mother played by a Michelle, it better be Michelle Yeoh. Seriously, if you’ve seen Everything Everywhere All At Once, there is no fucking comparison.
The other big issue I have with the script is the length. The movie runs two and a half hours, which is fine if there’s something worth showing for that amount of time. But honestly, we could do without the entire third act. It’s little more than a distraction that feels like an entirely separate vignette, as Sam attends a new high school, meets his first girlfriend, and gets bullied by some jocks with some one-note antisemitism thrown in so there could be secondary baddies. The whole 40 minutes spent on this tangent don’t really develop Sam as a character other than to have him prefer “Sam” over “Sammy” and get introduced to 16mm film. Big whoop. Even the resolution frustratingly answers no questions about why we went down this path. There are two scenes relating to his family that are worth saving, but apart from that Spielberg and Kushner could have easily skipped from the end of Act II to the epilogue, and my bladder would have thanked them. Seriously, there’s a bit early in the film, where the family moves into a new home, and Sammy insists on getting out of the car to film them coming into the driveway, with his sisters whining, “No, I have to pee!” By the end of this superfluous jaunt I was right there with them.
The only other real criticism I have is with the more derivative moments of the movie. Essentially, The Fabelmans is Spielberg’s version of Belfast or Roma, in that it’s a fictionalized account of his coming-of-age, here in the specific context of how he learned his love for filmmaking. While it’s a bit self-serving and conceited, I’m still on board for the concept. The slight ding against it is in the execution. The passion is sparked when he sees The Greatest Show on Earth, and he wants to recreate the train wreck scene. Okay, sure, I’ll play along, though I would have preferred if Spielberg licensed a better movie from which to draw his inspiration, but that’s just a silly quibble on my part. The problem is that most of the major moments we get in Sammy’s development going forward are either more instances of copying great works, or references to Spielberg’s own catalog, with future projects basically looking like he’s patting himself on the back and bragging, “Oh yeah, I had the idea for Saving Private Ryan all the way back when I was 12.” I’m sure it’s mostly harmless, and it might even be genuinely heartfelt, but I couldn’t shake the impression that it was a touch too egotistical and falsely quaint.
Okay, that’s all the negative stuff I have to say. I know it sounds like a lot, but honestly, it only knocks the final score down by a letter grade or so. Despite what seems like a lengthy rant, really it’s only the script that falls short. Everything else is a matter of taste and the fact that Michelle Williams is getting oversold for a fairly rote performance, which again isn’t bad, just the same old shtick she’s done loads of times before.
Now let’s get to the good stuff. Right off the bat, I should mention that Spielberg very pleasantly surprised me when it came to the final product versus what we were shown in the trailer. The images we got in the preview hinted at self-aggrandizing schmaltz that canonized his mother and showed off some of his worst directorial habits, particularly the “Spotlight Fetish.” What we actually got was much more even-handed. There really aren’t that many sugary moments substituting for whimsy, and while it’s somewhat cliché for the mom to be lionized and the dad to be the bad guy in these types of movies, there are bits of nuance as we go along. Even the backlighting and lens flares are kept to a respectable minimum by Spielberg standards.
Like I said, the script doesn’t go all the way in calling out negative actions when it comes to Mitzi while at the same time treating Burt like a piece of shit even though he’s largely just being pragmatic, but there are still some real grace notes along the margins. One of the things I particularly liked is the sole area where Burt gets to be shown in a fully positive light. As an electrical engineer and computer scientist, Burt has just as strong of a passion for electronics as Sam eventually does for cinema. The movie even opens with him explaining the glorious optical illusion that is film projection. It’s honestly fascinating and heartwarming to see a parent working so hard to show his child something wondrous in the world, even if his personal sphere is more mundane than the kid will ever be interested in. Even with his (again, reasonable) treatment of Sam’s hobby for what it is, he still fosters and admires his son’s work ethic and commitment to his art.
This is aided by the stellar performances from most of the non-Michelle Williams main cast. Paul Dano is note perfect as Burt, even if the script doesn’t treat him properly. He’s loving to a fault, logical in the extreme, and he rolls with the punches better than anyone could be expected to. I think what I like best about his characterization is that he’s really the closest thing we have to an audience cipher. There’s a lot about his wife and his son that he simply doesn’t understand, because it’s not how his brain is wired. But in spite of all that, he’s still in awe of what Sam is able to accomplish with a simple 8mm camera, and he still looks at Mitzi with the doe-eyed affection of a teenager getting a date with his first crush. Even though the film tries to paint him as the antagonist, he’s arguably the most purely good and loving character in the entire affair, and a lot of that is down to Dano’s performance.
Similarly, Gabriel LaBelle in his first major role knocks it out of the park. There are a couple moments in the unnecessary third act where he seems to be intentionally acting more like a bad Jewish stereotype (almost going full Professor Frink in one scene) to highlight the bigoted nature of his bullies, and it comes off a tad exploitative. But apart from that, LaBelle plays Sam with a strong, assertive determination that rises above the material. In addition, Seth Rogen is able to deftly walk a tightrope as Bennie, Burt’s best friend and business partner, acting as a surrogate uncle while also recognizing his own shortcomings later in the film. Judd Hirsch is basically only in this thing for five minutes as Mitzi’s uncle Boris, and in that brief space he acts circles around the entire cast. David Lynch has a late cameo as John Ford that is just divine.
I also really enjoyed the production design. The passage of time is reflected in the sets as they become more modern, particularly movie theatres, which only complements the overarching theme of the story. Even better, there’s a wonderful runner when it comes to the family dinners. On a couple of occasions, the Fabelmans sit down to eat rather large meals on paper plates, set on a thin paper tablecloth. When they’re done, Mitzi folds all the dishes into the cloth, scoops it up, and throws it out. That is fucking phenomenal! What a great visual metaphor! It’s a subtle yet brilliant way to show that no matter what facades might be put up, no matter what protestations any member of the group might give about their happy domestic situation, it’s all set up in a manner that is inherently flimsy and disposable. This is peak Spielberg! This is the kind of awesome stuff — dare I say, magic — that he can still pull off in a way that seems completely effortless.
Finally, while I did mention that some of Sam’s inspirations and projects aren’t entirely original, there is a pure joy for film lovers like me when he starts figuring out how to do things like stage large scenes, shoot on a dolly, perform tricks in the edit (leading to the Zapruder-esque midpoint plot turn), and execute rudimentary practical effects. A more cynical interpretation than even I could come up with might dismiss this as showing off, but just like Burt’s initial glee in explaining how motion pictures work, I think the idea is to show the next generation of potential auteurs a couple of techniques to get them started. It only makes sense that in making this film, Spielberg, as the man who grew from hero worship of the likes of Cecil B. DeMille, would want to inspire future creatives. It may be a tad egotistical to think of oneself as inspirational, but the man has more than enough bona fides to back it up, even before this leitmotif of basically just checking Academy boxes.
So after all is said and done, this is a good movie. In fact, it’s really good. It falls just short of the pantheon, but that’s okay. At least, it should be. Had it been released at any other point in the year without the fanfare of Awards Season, it would still stand out for its many high quality moments. However, given the unabashed campaigning, being “really good” clearly isn’t enough for Spielberg, Amblin, and Universal, and for me that dilutes the product rather than elevating it. If you want the praise, you need to earn it rather than buy it. Thankfully, there is a lot to applaud here, and when the Oscars roll around, it won’t feel utterly blasphemous to see it rack up a few nominations. I’d argue, quite strongly, that the two categories it seems to be most going for — Best Actress and Best Picture — are the ones that are the least deserving, and I’ll definitely tilt at windmills when they get those nods anyway.
But in the end, this is a worthy film, and a fine piece of cinematic art. It doesn’t necessarily further Steven Spielberg’s legacy, mostly because his place in history is already well assured, which is also why we as a public don’t need to be bombarded with flashy marketing telling us how perfect the movie is long before anyone gets to see it (released in Los Angeles and New York last week, will open nationwide on Thanksgiving). Had the picture been left alone and simply put out as a passion project for Spielberg, it would have come off as 100% earnest and genuine. Sadly, thanks to all the awards shilling, you have to fight the urge to dismiss it as a craven attempt to pad an already impressive résumé that didn’t need the help. Once you do, however, you will most definitely find The Fabelmans to be a rewarding experience.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? How susceptible are you to Oscar bait? Would you date a devoutly religious person in a faith other than yours if it led to a good makeout session? Let me know!