Wednesday , April 24 2024

Blu-ray Review: ‘The Fabelmans’ Directed by Steven Spielberg

The Fabelmans is Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical examination of a family struggling internally. At the center of this family is Sammy, an aspiring filmmaker. Modeled after Spielberg himself, Sammy is portrayed as a wide-eyed youngster by Mateo Zoyan Francis-DeFord. Later, a teen, Gabriel LaBelle, steps in. Sammy’s parents are computer engineer Burt (Paul Dano) and concert pianist Mitzi (Michelle Williams). They must drag their unwilling boy to a screening of The Greatest Show On Earth. Little Sammy would rather be just about anywhere else. But once the lights go down, he finds himself mesmerized by the moving images. A thrilling train crash sequence, in particular, thrills and frightens him. It’s obvious the experience has ignited a passion within the child.

At 151 minutes, Spielberg’s family epic might as well have been a five-part miniseries. The problem with that is, as director and co-writer (along with Tony Kushner), Spielberg never finds a suitable narrative drive. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of The Fabelmans is that Spielberg has fictionalized his own life story without uncovering any discernable entertainment value in it. Sammy gets an 8mm camera and begins crafting his own mini movies. He even gets a model train set as a gift, specifically to attempt a recreation of the wonder he witnessed on the big screen.

As Sammy uses his camera to capture his family’s private life, he begins to realize that his father and mother aren’t exactly the perfect couple he might’ve assumed them to be. Family friend Bennie (Seth Rogen) is in love with Mitzi—and clearly, she with him. Burt is too wrapped up in work (and denial) to notice his wife isn’t even interested in him. Bennie apparently has no real life of his own away from the Fabelmans, coming off equally pathetic and ineffectual as Burt. As for Mitzi, she is played broadly by Williams. Her awards nominations (including for an Academy Award) for this irritatingly over-the-top characterization are a little baffling.

Of course, The Fabelmans wasn’t structured as a miniseries, so the crack about it functioning as one is just that—a crack. But when a film is this indulgently long, boring almost beyond belief (given Steven Spielberg’s pedigree), and so stylized that it’s difficult to believe a moment of it, some viewers will be tempted to hit that pause button frequently. A good miniseries keeps you wanting to see what happens next, like turning the page to the next chapter of a good book. But The Fabelmans is such a blob of impressive production values propping up a nothing “story,” there’s no reason to feel motivated to see where Sammy’s path will lead him (plus, we already know).

Obviously, Steven Spielberg must have done something right. Great reviews and a slew of Oscar nominations indicate a rapturous critical reception. Judd Hirsch even snagged a nom for what amounts to a cameo (an amusing one, at least). But audiences stayed away, for the most part. They did so as well for his West Side Story remakes. It’s tough times, commercially, for the once can’t-miss filmmaker. Spielberg has again demonstrated resoundingly, in typically elaborate fashion, that he simply is not an artist. After 50 years of making movies, the 75-year-old has consistently revealed himself to be a supreme, almost-peerless entertainer. But depth? Profundity? Provocation of thought? These are not elements found in Spielberg’s wheelhouse and, at this point, probably never will be. Yet, The Fabelmans strives to achieve the kind of depth of thought and feeling that Spielberg isn’t able (or willing) to deliver.

This kind of stylized, soft-focus nostalgia for a bygone era has been done so much more effectively by a wide variety of filmmakers, ranging from Woody Allen’s concise Radio Days (85 minutes) or Giuseppe Tonratore’s long (but never feeling like it) Cinema Paradiso (155 minutes; director’s cut 173). If a given viewer can find a real use for The Fabelmans, a true reason to revisit it for additional viewers, more power to them. That said, I’ll take 1941 any day.

Don’t expect much out of Univeral’s Blu-ray edition bonus material for The Fabelmans. There are but three superficial featurettes that total about 48 minutes. “A Personal Journey” skims the surface of Spielberg’s own upbringing as it relates to the movie. “Family Dynamics” briefly focuses on the film’s casting. “Crafting the World of ‘The Fabelmans‘” is just a little more worthwhile, taking a slightly deeper look at the most-redeeming aspects of this otherwise uninvolving effort—it’s production values.

About The Other Chad

An old co-worker of mine thought my name was Chad. Since we had two Chads working there at the time, I was "The Other Chad."

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