Thursday, May 4, 2023

Lights, Camera,...

Film: The Fabelmans
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on basement television.

A number of years ago, a random passer-by on this blog was upset that I wasn’t completely blown away by the film The Color of Pomegranates. In that rant, in addition to spelling the name of the director wrong, that commenter also told me I should spend my time with easier, less challenging films, like the works of Steven Spielberg. I always thought that was a weird insult—say what you will about Spielberg, the man makes a good movie. Seriously, go with Michael Bay or Tony Scott if you’re shooting for lowbrow. Anyway, I was reminded of this when I sat down with The Fabelmans.

For lack of a better way to put it, this is Steven Spielberg making his own fictionalized biopic of his early life and birth as a filmmaker. If you like, it’s akin in some ways to 8 ½, or perhaps more closely Woody Allen’s Radio Days. We’re going to see the young Spielberg stand-in Sam Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan initially, then Gabriel LaBelle for the bulk of the film) introduced to the idea of movies by his parents, Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt (Paul Dano) in the form of The Greatest Show on Earth. Sammy seems upset by the train crash sequence, but also fascinated by it to the point that he asks for a train set for Hannukah that year.

With the trains, Sammy stages his own version of the crash. Eventually, Mitzi helps him film it so that he can watch it over and over. His parents are convinced that he is terrified and doing this to cope, but the truth is that Sammy is actually fascinated by the idea of filmmaking, and soon begins making films with his younger sisters as his cast.

This is the lead-in to what are going to be the film’s side-by-side stories. On the one hand, we’re going to see Sam Fabelman learning to tell stories visually and becoming more and more in love with the world of film. His father is a technical genius and sees this only as a hobby and expects Sam to end up in engineering or something similar. His mother, though, sees the artistic side of what Sam is doing and understands his push in creating art. On this front, his mother truly understands him and his father seems to stand in his way.

At the same time, though, there is a massive rift between Sam and his mother. Over time, it becomes clear that Mitzi is having an affair with Bennie Loewy (Seth Rogen, of all people), who is also the best friend of Burt Fabelman. This is hinted at when the Fabelmans move to Arizona for Burt’s job and Mitzi demands that he hire Bennie into the company so that he can come with them. It becomes abundantly clear at a family camping week, and then an open secret when the Fabelmans move to California and leave Bennie behind.

This is probably the throughline of The Fabelmans. Sam, who is struggling with wanting to create art for a living and desperate to find a way into the industry, is at odds with both of his parents. His mother understands him on a deep level and what he wants to do, but Sam cannot get past the fact that his mother has betrayed him, his father, and the family. Sam respects his father, but also knows that his father doesn’t understand him. So he’s forced into a place where he resents the parent who understands him and fiercely loves the parent who can’t understand his life choices.

Essentially, the rest of the movie takes place inside of that framework. The move from Arizona to California, filled with anti-Semitism and bullying, is still essentially a backdrop for Sam’s budding talent and family woes.

There’s a lot to like here. Judd Hirsch shows up for a cup of coffee in the middle as Mitzi’s Uncle Boris, who has spent his life working in show business. Hirsch nabbed a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his 15 or so minutes on screen and to be fair, he’s one of the most memorable characters on screen. Michelle Williams was also nominated for this, and I like Michelle Williams, but I don’t know that I love this performance a great deal.

No, for me, the two performances that work the best are those of Gabriel LaBelle and Paul Dano. I’m very much a Paul Dano apologist, and in this, he’s really at his best. Burt Fabelman is a difficult line to walk. Dano needs to be someone who wants to be sympathetic to his sun but is unable to really do so because he can’t understand the way his son’s mind works. Dano is a man lost in his own work to the point that he’s also lost to the rest of the world. While this is Sam Fabelman’s story, it’s Burt Fabelman’s tragedy.

Of course Spielberg tells the story well, and manages to keep that theme of family distress running through all of the changes that happen through the movie. I can’t help but feel like much of this isn’t necessary, though. The Fabelmans is 151 minutes long, and it really feels like a story that could be told in no more than two hours and probably a bit less. Someone needs to make a movie that tells a complete story in 92 minutes including credits, and that movie needs to make a lot of money so that we can start pulling back from these bloated films that are 20% longer than they need to be. For as good as he is, Spielberg is not immune to under-editing his work.

Why to watch The Fabelmans: Because it’s hard for Spielberg to make something that isn’t at least somewhat worth seeing.
Why not to watch: Like a lot of movies today, it’s longer than it needs to be.


  1. Hey, do not lump Tony Scott with a no-talent cunt like Michael Bay. Tony Scott maybe style over substance but at least he knows how to tell a story while Bay doesn't know how to keep a fucking camera still for 8 fucking seconds and doesn't know how to make a shot longer than 5 fucking seconds. Plus, Tony is a much better filmmaker than his brother. Bay on the other hand only made 2 decent movies in his lifetime in Bad Boys and The Rock as everything else is fucking unwatchable. I'll bet you that if he saw Satantango by Bela Tarr, his fucking head will fucking explode.

    Sorry, you got me upset as I really fucking loathe Michael Bay.

    I am intrigued to see this though I haven't seen anything Spielberg done since that one movie we prefer not to talk about with the refrigerator, CGI monkeys, Russians, and aliens. Yet, I did see the final scene involving a God of Cinema playing another God of Cinema.

    1. I actually like a lot of Tony Scott, but he was very much a lowest-common-denominator filmmaker. A good one, yes, and with a lot of entertaining films under his belt, but you don't watch a Tony Scott movie to have thoughts about anything.

      This is the best Spielberg has done in some time. Most of his films are at least watchable (although I hated War Horse and didn't love Ready Player One). This one is good, though, albeit too long.

    2. Not even Man on Fire or Enemy of the State? The latter is kind of underrated.

    3. I don't think I've seen either of those, so I'm only working on what I've seen.

      But I give the man credit. The Hunger is a banger of a film. But for a film snob, the name Tony Scott is going to raise hackles.