Dead man directing. One might choose to appraise The Fabelmans in several different ways. The first is as quite a proficient movie, given the auteur it’s credited to is no longer with us. The second would be that whoever did direct it (presumably in a Berg clone suit) has doggedly followed the anaemic “autobiographical” model of many a moviemaker who mistakenly believed their formative experiences held some degree of wider fascination for audiences, not to mention dramatic import. Occasionally, just occasionally, such assumptions prove justified: Hope and Glory. More often, we get an aroma of Roma. Or The Fabelmans. If there’s a surprise here, it’s that a movie starring BOTH Seth Rogen and Paul Dano, two of the most resistible actors under the firmament, should by rights have been wholly unwatchable, rather than simply slightly bland and ineffectual. The Fabelmans is absolutely a “horizon in the middle” picture.
That line is courtesy of a late-stage cameo from also-deceased David Lynch as John Ford, an enjoyably cantankerous take on the titan of the western genre who comes armed with a beguiling metaphor for a good movie. There’s little else in The Fabelmans that actually musters one to sit up in one’s seat. Even the vaunted Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination shoe-in Judd Hirsch as Boris, an aging uncle of Sammy/Stevie (Gabriel LaBelle) who worked variously as a circus performer and in movies, all but announcing himself with an “Oy vey!”, is a stereotyping distillation of other, better (funnier) characters you’ve seen before. He’s there to offer maximum kvetching schtick and throw a few pat pearls of wisdom the future-Hollywood celebre’s way about family and art,
Mostly, The Fabelmans presents itself with graceless self-importance via a gargantuan and entirely unnecessary 150-minute running time. Were this in the vein of the ornate and shamelessly sentimental Cinema Paradiso, a hugely indulgent movie that nevertheless fully conveys its first love for cinema, that would be something. Instead, there’s a functionality about the path of Sammy as budding moviemaker, with schematically chartered obstacles to traverse and emotional travails to overcome, none of them packing enough wallop for a filmic hill of beans.
Emotionally unstable mom Mitzi (Michelle Williams) hits her son! The trauma! Mom is having a secret affair with schlub “uncle” Bennie (Rogen)! The distress! Detective Sammy pieces this together while editing a home movie (all this did was put me in mind of Spielberg contemporary Brian De Palma turning actual detective on his father’s affair, and make me wish we were watching a movie about the formative experiences of a future director with a backbone).
Sammy moves to California and gets bullied for his Jewishness (rather than simply for being a maximum nerd, since Sammy is undoubtedly less geeky than Stevie ever was; he gets girls and everything). Because, what would a life story be without some identifiable Oscar-bait prejudice to surmount? Oh God, poor Steven, he was sooooo harshly treated. Look at what he had to battle against to become the director of The BFG, and look at where he is today (below ground). Shower him with more Oscars this instant! You don’t think all this is calculated (even in a backhanded, “This isn’t Spielberg making the movie so if you fall for it you’ve got an even bigger shock coming” way)? Unlike Woody Allen, who won’t ever come within sniffing distance of one again, Steven’s Jewishness only seems to be a fundamental, foregrounded part of his identity when it comes to vying for Oscars.
To give credit where its due, Gabriel LaBelle delivers a commendable performance as the young Spielberg, if undoubtedly a version more socially competent and less painfully nebbish than the real deal. But then, this is all about self-glorification, hence Sammy/ Stevie as a leader of men (boys) as a director. The school bullies are also believably wankerish, but that in itself isn’t some kind of towering achievement. Indeed, the scene in which brutal jock Logan (Sam Rechner) reveals a sensitive side, after Steven, with a psycho-sexual flourish, fashions his oppressor as a golden god in his Ditch Day documentary reel, is the height of banality (as is Sammy’s strident declaration “You dumb, anti-Semitic asshole!” I’m trying to imagine Stevie in a similar situation and drawing a blank). This, along with his ability to charm the girls, surely bears about as much resemblance to Spielberg’s actual youth as Hook.
There’s an argument to be made that the antipathetic filmmaking on display in The Fabelmans is simply the inevitable dwindling of a once major talent, and that there isn’t much difference in the directorial nous here to that of Ready Player One or West Side Story (you know, movies from when he was still alive). Spielberg has, in some ways, been a cadaver ever since Janusz Kamiński began calling the shots as his DP (the hideous Kingdom of the Crystal Skull standing as primary evidence thereof). The Fabelmans is as confidently ghastly looking, then, as every other movie lensed by Janusz, and it would be very easy to believe he was its ghost director rather than Sammy. There’s certainly no real virtuosity in the filmmaking, nothing that really buzzes with someone wishing to impress their love of medium on the audience. Compare this to, say, Joe Dante’s Matinee (a movie with faults its own but palpable in its adoration of the art form).
The best The Fabelmans can offer is some reprocessed cheese manifesting as psychology. Sammy is taken to his first movie, the appropriately tiresome Best Picture Oscar winner The Greatest Show on Earth; who’d have believed the movies’ most populist director was once afraid to set foot inside a theatre, right? How ironic!! Steven’s soon crashing toy trains (in about the closest The Fabelmans gets to an approximation of cinematic invention) and mom realises “That’s why he needs to watch them crash. He needs to get some kind of control over it”. Arghhhhhh. This being considered for awards attention says it all (but audiences giving it a wide berth says a lot more).
Much more interesting would have been a movie starting at the point where The Fabelmans ends. Young Sammy navigating his way through the dark underbelly of Hollywood and onward to success. How about we a chronicle of Stevie’s activities in and around the sets of Poltergeist, Back to the Future and Jurassic Park? And with regard to what’s on screen for all to see in Hook. And his duties as an adoptive father. What would Crispin Glover say about The Fabelmans? What more does he need to say?]
Williams seems to be getting Best Actress/Supporting Actress attention. More distracting than her perf is that she appears to be addicted to Kidman’s face fixer, whom we all know is the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills. She’s increasingly resembling Shirley MacLaine circa Terms of Endearment. Boorish oaf Rogen mercifully resists the urge to laugh, during which he historically resembles a dying Tuskan Raider. Dano is a sickly beta-mask dad, so quite possibly an accurate resemblance of the actual pere Berg.
The scuttle is that the Spielberg stepped down from the eventually titled Dial of Destiny because some most unsettling truths were about to emerge about his life and predilections. That departure took place on the brink of the coof plandemic, and from thence his redundant musical remake was delayed and then finally released. And then then this, his first posthumously made picture, something it seems he’d been considering for several decades. Were we to credit The Fabelmans as a cinematic vision from the real deal, we could only conclude what’s been evident for a while; he’s a pale imitation of his former self. The lack of substance here is writ large in the awful title, although the picture itself isn’t quite that shallow. It’s just weightless and inconsequential.