Steven Spielberg is a living legend of cinema. With a career stretching more than 50 years, he helped usher in so much evolution in Hollywood. Heck, he single-handedly changed the industry with Jaws. So, as his career gradually slows, he’s telling his own story for once. Will The Fabelmans capture the magic we come to expect from this master of cinema? Or is this just another mid-20th-century period piece? 

The Fabelmans follows the story of Sammy Fableman (Gabriel LaBelle) a young man coming of age in the middle of the 20th century. As he grows up and realizes his love of moviemaking, he struggles under a sea of domestic drama. His creatively unfulfilled mother (Michelle Williams) yearns for a life beyond housewife-dom while his engineer father (Paul Dano) muddles through his WWII trauma, working like a dog to keep his family living the standard middle-class lifestyle. 

Judd Hirsch, Seth Rogen, Julia Butters and Jeannie Berlin co-star in the movie. Steven Spielberg directs The Fabelmans from a script he co-wrote with Tony Kushner. The story is loosely based on Spielberg’s own life. 

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Diving straight in, let’s get one thing out of the way at the start. This is a Steven Spielberg movie. The man is one of Hollywood’s living legends. With a filmography listing classics like Jaws, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Arc and Jurassic Park, over more than 50 years behind the camera, everything he touches will look immaculate. Visually, the movie is beautiful.

Unfortunately, we’ve already talked about some overly self-indulgent autobiographical movies this year, and The Fabelmans struggles mightily (though unsuccessfully) against this. Coming in at two and a half hours, it’s a haul. I felt every minute of this movie.  

Sammy Fableman behind the camera.

This is a meandering story covering about 15 years of Sammy’s life. The struggle is that there’s no real focus to pull the audience through. Sometimes it’s Sammy’s family. Other times it’s his movies. Sammy just kind of exists. He’s a kid. 

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I’ve seen countless other 1950s-period pieces. That has been done. This movie exists because it’s Steven Spielberg’s life story. There’s a reverence for the magic of cinema which permeates every frame of the first trailer. It’s just unfortunate that the person who cut the first trailer apparently hadn’t seen the rest of the movie. 

Cinema is magic. Hollywood understands this. In movies like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg is responsible for some of the most magical screen moments of the last forty years. While The Fabelmans has all the right ingredients to tap into this magic as well as a palpable emotion, the film feels tentative. There’s a superficiality that ultimately keeps it from selling this truly powerful story. 

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This is particularly frustrating as the dynamic cast could easily tap into this story’s narrative power. They could sell this. For some reason, though, everything remains painfully out of reach, largely due to the script. Michelle Williams is certainly the on-screen MVP as Mitzi, Sammy’s charismatic mother. Williams finds this woman’s inherent strength, and in her hands, it’s clear Mitzi is stifling in this life. 

At the same time, Paul Dano gives gold as Sammy’s father Burt. Dano is pitch-perfect in the restrained character. Burt, we hear over and over again, is a scientist. He’s logical and, as such, is a million emotional miles away from his wife and son. However, Dano never lets the character fall into the icy no-man’s-land the movie seems to think he’s trapped in. He finds the complexity in this understated man. 

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Dano brings Burt to life as a World War II-era father. It’s likely he’s a veteran. At one point, Sammy calls World War II “his war” when talking to Burt. It’s easy to infer that Burt and Mitzi married young, and he’s been working through his war trauma to keep his family housed and fed. He is the prototypical “Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.” Dano brings a beautiful sense of repression to the character.

Burt isn’t the oblivious scientist the other characters see him as. Rather, he sees everything going on around him, and it is causing him pain. He just has no idea how to show it. When Burt really hits his stride into the third act, Dano’s work is a thing of beauty. When Burt finally allows himself to feel, it tugs at your heartstrings hard. Dano deserves that Oscar-winning scene. This third act of The Fabelmans could (and should) have been his. It is unfortunate that this beautiful scene divides its focus and is ultimately over far too fast. 

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The movie, like Sammy, has a favorite parent. It’s Mitzi.  Michelle Williams’ Oscar chances have been hyped since the film’s Toronto Film Festival debut. In all this, though, it seems to miss Dano as the movie’s true heart. His powerful but understated portrayal is at the core of this story. Burt’s importance in his son’s narrative can’t be ignored, and with that, Paul Dano deserves far more love for this performance than he’s getting.

As mentioned, this isn’t the first autobiographical work I’ve reviewed this year from a filmmaker, and perhaps this struggle with emotionality comes from an issue with perspective. 

Sammy is the focus of the narrative. We meet him as a boy of about six (using Spielberg’s age as a guide) and follow him through his first job in the movie industry. His perspective dominates the narrative. So this frustrating hands-off mentality towards his parents would make sense. I’ve already said we never truly understand our parents on a human level. They’re our parents, after all. They’re grown up. 

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However, if this is the case and we’re watching this story through Sammy’s eyes, The Fabelmans somehow miss truly capturing the magic of cinema. This, in truth, is its most frustrating struggle.

Steven Spielberg emerged as the first real generation of filmmakers to come of age as film fans. They grew up going to the nickel matinees and the double features. These future directors loved films, and they worked their nostalgia into their own movies. They knew film, and they understood film history. They loved it.

The Fabelmans attempts to capture this cinematic magic early in the first act as Burt and Mitzi take a young Sammy to see The Greatest Show on Earth. It’s the young boy’s first movie, and like most films of this genre, we see the magical shot of everyone watching the movie. This is the theatrical experience in its purest form. The audience is captivated. This experience quickly leads Mitzi to introduce her son to film as a way to process a certain scene. And with that, Steven Sp… er… Sammy Fabelman is off and running. 

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This movie should treat the movies with a sense of wonder and magic. It is the story of one of our greatest living filmmakers, for crying out loud. However, it never feels magical after that first act. Interestingly, Sammy repeatedly gets mad at his father for calling his filmmaking just a hobby. Unfortunately, though, that is all it feels like. A hobby. 

Is this an issue with LaBelle’s performance? We never see him as a film fan. We see him going to see The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in the second act (which holds narrative importance to the end of the movie.) However, the scene is less about celebrating cinema and is drowned out by the fact that these are teenage boys. At the same time, there are multiple opportunities to dive into this same magic as Sammy shoots his own works. This is nostalgia for a generation of film kids who got together and shot movies with their friends.

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There are a few instances where we see these movies shot. However, the film is far more interested in jumping to the accolades. We watch these movies with the audience as Sammy projects them for his friends and family. In this decision, the audience isn’t allowed into the magic of filmmaking. Rather, we are the outsider with little knowledge of what it took to make these. The film desperately wants to us to see these moments through Sammy’s eyes, but it’s hard when the film treats the audience like Burt.  

Ultimately, The Fabelmans desperately wants to be a prestige picture. This is a Steven Spielberg movie, so it does look like a million bucks. It ticks a lot of the right boxes, but its lack of brevity is made worse due to massive struggles with tone. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to say if The Fabelmans is more guilty of tentatively playing to the widest possible demographic and, as such, misses the magic or if it’s so fixated on achieving a glossy, perfect exterior that it forgets to bring its heart. 

The Fabelmans is in theaters around the country today. 

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This review was originally published on 11/23/22. 

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