I had time to kill before catching up with “Skinamarink,” thanks to the inevitable online showtimes not matching up with the teens who operate the theater.
So I thought I’d sit through Spielberg’s fictionalized version of how a great filmmaker — himself — is made, the sort of family and life he grew up in, the support that gave him a chance to become a self-taught auteur, a “wunderkind” who broke into directing shortly after he started shaving.
I thought “The Fabelmans” was, when I first reviewed it, an uneven, indulgent but pleasantly idealized “This Boy’s Life” leads him to making movies, and remains a pleasant way to kill a couple of hours in a cinema. Seeing it again, looking around the periphery for a fresh take without taking notes, the things that bugged me initially stood out more — the fantasized version of being bullied yet making your mark in a new high school, the stereotypical Jewish Uncle played by Judd Hirsch, the sanitized version of his mother’s personality, illness and betrayal, the pleasant but charmless Bennie played by the pleasant but dull Seth Rogen.
Sammy’s first romance with a devout but dim Catholic girl seems cloying and played for broad, low laughs and not all that credible.
There are scenes, shots and situations in “The Fabelmans” borrowed directly from Spielberg’s early life, as it was related in the 2018 documentary “Spielberg,” which you can watch here if you missed it. But the contradiction that is Spielberg’s life story, which he has spun into myth in assorted “show business” embellished legends, grates. We know he lied about his age, for whatever reason, lied about how he faked his way onto the Universal Studios lot, grabbed an empty office, etc.
He likes to present himself as a put-upon loner, doggedly pursuing his ambition and art. You can’t round up legions of “actors” and extras for your teen extravaganzas if you aren’t the opposite of a loner. He was a popular, enthusiastic showman, even as a kid.
He is, at best, an unreliable narrator, and hiring Tony Kushner to fictionalize an already dubiously-sourced life doesn’t correct that. The film blurs fact and fiction even further, recreating young Spielberg’s “End of Nowhere” 8mm WWII movies made with his many Boy Scout friends as cast, almost shot by shot, as a quick viewing of the “Spielberg” documentary reveals.
That probably won’t impact the film’s expected haul of Oscar nominations, but it should. A lesser work by a long-lionized, Oscar-winning filmmaker that didn’t connect with audiences, why burn through the prestige and extra box office Oscar nominations confer on a movie I’d liken — at best — to Spielberg’s good but not great third-tier films, “War Horse,” “Terminal,” “The Post,” and far less ambitious than any of those?
Michelle Williams is the stand-out in the picture, and a nomination for her is not worth quibbling over, even though the embarrassment of riches of fine turns by actresses this year mean that several are sure to be left out when nominations are announced Tuesday morning.
I liked Paul Dano‘s performance, too. But nobody is seriously talking this up.
If Spielberg gets a directing nomination for being “Spielberg” and for making a “personal” indulgent and I’d argue inconsequential film, he will be depriving some less lauded but more worthy of her or his due.
I’d also hate to see nominations spent on Joseph Kosinski (“Top Gun Maverick”) or James Cameron (“Avatar: The Way of Water”). Their films aren’t on a par with “Women Talking,” “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” “Elvis” or “TAR.”
Sarah Polley (“Women Talking”) and Gina Prince-Bythewood (“The Woman King”) made more deserving films, and Edward Berger (“All Quiet on the Western Front”) out-Spielberged Spielberg with his World War I epic.
Martin McDonagh seems more of a cinch for “Banshees of Inisherin” than Park Chan-Wook for “Decision to Leave.” Both of their films were more intellectually ambitious and interesting films than those delivered by The Blockbuster Trio.
How can you nominate Spielberg and leave Baz (likely) or Sarah and Gina (almost certainly) out and be OK with that?
I got just as much of a kick out of “Fabelmans'” version of how little Sammy (Steven) discovered “Spielberg light,” figured out low-cost ways to fake everything from explosions and train wrecks to gunfire the second time I sat through the film.
But the guy made “E.T.,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Close Encounters,” “Schindler’s List,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Catch Me If You Can,” “Sugarland Express,” “Lincoln” and “Jaws.” “Personal” or not, his latest isn’t in the same league with those epic, artful and occasionally high-minded entertainments. It’d be a shame to waste Oscar acclaim on a movie this slight, no matter how “personal.”
And Oscar nominations and wins probably won’t help the bottom line, either. The deathly silence of this second viewing, none of the the laughs the film got when I saw it in a preview showing back in Nov., suggest word of mouth is a big reason it’s not doing better, because it’s just not “playing.”
So here’s hoping the Academy doesn’t Meryl Streep this movie and nominate it to high heavens because it is Spielberg’s “due.” Nominate others this Oscar season, send people off to better movies by being more generous to the other contenders than you are to this lesser effort by one of the greatest ever.