The Fabelmans (2022)
PG-13 for anti-semitism, bullying, mild violence, and affair. Nothing really graphic is shown on screen. I suppose there's some low-key acceptable blasphemy. (I use the word "acceptable" because society deems this specific form of blasphemy okay, even though I find it a bit mortifying.) Tonally, it feels like it could be wholesome. It's like a Wonder Years look at a rough time in Spielberg's life.
DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg
Do you know, Mr. Spielberg, how I needed this to be good? It had all of the elements. That trailer, it looked like it was going to knock my socks off. I was going to show it as the first movie of my film class as a "Role of Film" discussion point. But then it was this. I don't mean to be mean. I know that this was a personal movie for you. But for me, oh man, it's the first blog I'm writing today and it's gonna be a doozy. I have to point out that I'm going to be marathon writing today. I have completely outpaced myself in terms of writing versus watching. And I've been writing a lot.
Golly, where to start? I mean, the worst thing is the acting, right? If I had to look at The Fabelmans as a memoir about Spielberg's childhood, there are elements that I could really pick apart and it would be fine. While Spielberg might not be alone in the things that happen to him, it is an intensely personal story about his own vulnerabilities. These are the moments that defined him as a filmmaker and coming back to this moment in history requires amazing self-awareness and introspection. Okay. That's cool. Why is everyone acting like a psychopath? Now, I'm going to caveat all of this, despite the fact that the acting really bothered me, like, the whole time. (My best critique comes from me imitating the movie because it's just so lacking in nuance.) The caveat I'm going to give is, "I oddly think that Spielberg's mother might have been that over-the-top" and "Who am I to say that people didn't act that way in Spielberg's family?" To the latter question, I say that Spielberg then needs to film one more scene where a lot of people just question why everyone is talking like it's "Red, White, and Blaine."
I already feel like a bully. But I gotta keep going because The Fabelmans might be one of the worst movies on an already pretty weak Academy Awards season. (Note: I hate when people do this and I'm doing this. I don't want to hate the Academy Awards this year. But it feels like such a burden going through these movies that are absolutely not knocking my socks off for the most part. If you like these movies, continue liking them. I mean, some of your opinions are wrong, but I completely want you to like something over not liking them. I'm going to try my best to forgive The Fabelmans, but it might be a tall order.) It's just that, as much as this is the true story of Steven Spielberg (for the most part, even by his own admission), none of this happened. Okay, a version of it happens. It feels like I'm splitting hairs, but this movie is so colored by time that it is hard to take it seriously. The Fabelmans (remind me to talk about the title) exists in that Wonder Years / American Graffiti era of time that never really existed. It's nostalgia for something fake. America never looked like this. It looked a little bit like this. But I want to use another Academy Award nominee for nostalgia done right versus what we're seeing in The Fabelmans.
The best part about Babylon is the notion that it takes a time that we've written off as looking one way and made it seem human. Despite rudimentary technology, people are basically people. That thing that makes us look at black-and-white photos and treat it as somehow something other, that's what is going on in The Fabelmans. Nothing quite feels real. While the film is partially about anti-semitism, real racism doesn't exist in this version of the 1950s and 1960s. Instead, it's this Back to the Future version of the '50s, where everyone is straight laced. That might seem like it's a small thing, but it almost gets in the way of storytelling. Sam gets into scrapes with multiple bullies at his California school. There's this distance between the idealistic suburbs that raised Sam in Arizona and points west and the busy world of California. Now, I believe that Steven Spielberg really faced actual, honest-to-God anti-Semitism. But because the entire movie is tinted through the lens of nostalgia, the bullying doesn't quite have the effect it needs to. Honestly, I think, based on this movie, Steven Spielberg's bullies were the same kids who tortured Daniel LaRusso in The Karate Kid.
The acting also does a disservice to a lot of the characters, but none moreso than Spielberg's father alias Burt Fabelman. (I can't handle the name "Fabelman". Again, remind me to talk about this.) Burt Fabelman is the victim of the piece. If the story is about Mitzi and her inner demons, Burt is the one who bears Mitzi's problems with a level of grace that almost dehumanizes him. Mitzi is all over the place. Again, I get the vibe that Mitzi might be the most accurate character in this movie. I don't know what it is about Googling Steven Spielberg's real mom (a sentence that I now realize is probably problematic and that technology has made me too complacent with boundaries), she seems like a lady who would go dancing in front of her children in a nightgown, accentuating her form. But Mitzi's real issue, at least symptom-wise, is that she has fallen in love with another man, a man that Sam treats as an uncle. Bennie is never really demonized in the piece. Instead, the rose-colored glasses that look over this entire movie show him more or less faultless as Sam takes out his adolescent angst on this man.
Let's be very clear: Burt and Bennie are best friends. Burt really goes the extra mile to ensure that Bennie can succeed. But Bennie is a hanger-on. He has no family of his own, so he adopts the moniker of uncle. Sure, he's a nice guy, but let's put him more in the "nice-guy-syndrome" guys, who feel like they deserve more than what life hands them. When he seduces Mitzi, there's something very wrong about that. Now, because everything is through the eyes of Sam, he doesn't really know the behind-the-scenes of what is going on between Burt and Bennie. For all we know, Burt can be a real jerk about the whole thing. But no one comes acrosss as terrible in this movie. Part of that might come from the fact that the Spielbergs have grown to love this man as a member of the family. Part of that might come from age or ignorance. But ignorance doesn't mean that characters are allowed to be as flat as Burt. Paul Dano, honestly, is one of the most solid actors of this generation, but his "Aw shucks" attitude (if you hear me to do it, I'm sure it'd come across as better. Maybe I should do a new podcast...). But Burt takes it all in stride. Sure, he cries from time-to-time. But his lack of fight, while intending to be empathy for his mentally troubled wife, comes across as an NPC in a video game more than it does a real person.
I want to play Devil's Advocate, simply because I can. I want to imagine that Sam wants Burt to stand up and protect his wife. After all, this is Sam's story, not Burt's. But Paul Dano never lets the facade down (I refuse to find the character to make "facade" work). It's not like there is a moment where Burt becomes a real person, letting us into the story of how everything he does is a choice. That, that would have been something. I wouldn't have questioned any of the acting choices in this movie. Instead, it would have all been a mask put on by Burt and there would have been a story there. Instead, the "gollyness" of it all just hurts his character and leaves me nothing to invest in. Sam is the one who gets all of the emotions and that's because Sam is writing and directing the movie. That's such a disservice to storytelling and it honestly gets me a little bit worked up. Have Mitzi be weird. I don't think that Michelle Williams is really blowing minds with her performance, but I also kind of see Mitzi as just being a little bit off. But everyone in the movie is Mitzi. That's not reality.
Do you know what else isn't reality? Sam's girlfriend. Come on. I get it. It's a joke. It's meant to be this broad character. Sam's girlfriend is apparently really into "Jesus", which is why she wanted to date a Jewish boy. Okay, slow down. I bet that part, if you squint, might be kind of / sort of real. But then she comes across as an absolute crazy person. She has pictures of Christ next to her Teen Beat photos of cute boys? She thinks that Jesus is sexy. I want to use this as Exhibit A for the prosecution for how time has completely colored Steven Spielberg's memory of this. Do I think that Monica was probably intensely eccentric? Yeah. But man alive, it doesn't do anything for me to have her act like that. Are we supposed to be emotionally invested when you have this caricature of a person commenting on everything that young Sam is doing? It does a disservice to the entire third act of the movie. As bleak as the story gets at times, it's just Jar Jar Binks running around doing goofy commentary about being Christian versus being Jewish. It's a stand-up routine that is cringe-worthy.
Okay, Judd Hirsch. Geez, I can't believe I'm about to bully Judd Hirsch on my blog. Judd Hirsch is up for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Do I think that Judd Hirsch deserves an Oscar? Probably. (The back of my brain is screaming that Judd Hirsch did something weird, but I also want to stay focused on what I'm writing.) Do I think that Judd Hirsch has the best performance in The Fabelmans? Also, yes. Do I think that someone should get an Academy Award for a minute-and-a-half of screen time bordering on cameo? Absolutely not. His part is unimportant to the story and I never got beyond the acceptance that "Judd Hirsch is in this scene." Seriously. He's in the movie for such a short amount of time that I could only see the actor and not the character. Come on. That's trying too hard.
Now, it's right there in front of us. Steven Spielberg named the movie about himself, a filmmaker who tells stories, The Fabelmans. Oh, I got it. They flipped the L and the E to make the metaphor subtle. Come on. It's a sledgehammer. Let me do some of the lifting with the theme, okay? On top of that, it really isn't about storytelling. I would say that the filmmaking thing is more of a motif than a theme anyway. I wish that this would be about the challenges and freedoms of filmmaking. Instead, it is something that just happens. Let's cut all the movie stuff out, okay? There's a story about a kid who knows that his mom is having an affair and that he can't help growing up in the shadow of his family falling apart. If anything, the movies come across more like a hobby and a calling than something cathartic. Sam never comes to deal with his issues with the film. Sometimes he runs away to edit stuff. I kind of like that as dipping the toe in the pool. But Sam's love of cinema is told to us more than actually shown to us. We, as the audience, never feel the need to turn back to the camera or the edit bay. It's just Sam's "I'm sad" space. The thing is, the movie started with the promise that films were a way for Sam to escape. That first reproduction of the train crashing, that made sense. But the rest of the movie just tells us that Sam finds value in making movies. There's a disconnect between the two narratives.
Yeah, I don't know what's going on with Steven Spielberg. I loved Steven Spielberg. In my brain, Steven Spielberg is still one of the greatest directors ever, let alone living. But it's been decades since I've fully embraced a Steven Spielberg movie. I appreciate that he opened the recesses of his past ot share with us, but it's just not done well.
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Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.