SPIELBERG’S PASSION PROJECT
Throughout the years, Hollywood has seen many famed directors rise to become legendary within the filmmaking industry, ascending on their own meticulous directorial merits when approaching a motion picture. Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Clint Eastwood, Cecil B. DeMille, and Francis Ford Coppola are just some of the names of the great ones that have made their mark in Hollywood and etched their names in the illustrious tapestry of movies. While a new generation of directors have emerged in modern times (i.e. Christopher Nolan, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo Del Toro, etc.), these legendary directors have been both respected by their peers and the entire Hollywood community as well as moviegoers everywhere. Such is the cases with director Steven Spielberg, who is among the noteworthy ranks of these “great directors”, becoming a classic household name that many (cinephiles and causal movie watchers) have come to known and the feature films he’s directed. His films, including such iconic movies like Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, have become cinematic staples in not just in the realm of Hollywood, but in the history of movies. Spielberg has even delved into theatrical motions pictures that draw inspiration from very humanistic issues (society, war, terrorism, civil rights, identity, etc.), with films like Saving Private Ryan, The Color Purple, Schindler’s List, Amistad, Lincoln, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, The Post. BFG, Ready Player One, and West Side Story. Beyond the directorial chair, Spielberg has done (on several occasions) acted as a producer, executive producer, and even as a screenplay writer. He was also the co-founders of the movie studio DreamWorks Studio. Thus, with his fame growing and his film reputation amongst many being palpable (and celebrated) it’s no reason why Spielberg is considered one of the most powerful directors in Hollywood’s film history. Now, Universal Pictures (in association with Amblin Entertainment and Reliance Entertainment) present the latest film director Steven Spielberg with the release of The Fabelmans. Does this movie reach memorable cinematic integrity with the director’s illustrious career or is it too much of a “passion project” that only Spielberg himself would enjoy?
Growing up as a young Jewish boy in New Jersey, Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) received his first taste of cinematic storytelling with the film “The Greatest Show on Earth)”, which contained a train accident sequence that changed everything for him. Joined by his three sisters, Sammy is raised by his father, Burt (Paul Dano), and his mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), turning to the power of a camera to bring his filmmaking visions and dreams to life. With a move to Phoenix, Arizona as a teenager, changes everything for Sammy, who begins to spark an interest in his directorial passions with help from his fellow Boy Scout companions, while also starting to comprehend the turbulence within Mitzi, who’s prone to bipolar behavior and remains uncomfortably close to the Fabelman’s longtime friend, Bennie (Seth Rogen). Years later, another move to Northern California puts a major strain on the Fabelman ties, while Sammy also deals with anti-Semitism at school, trying to handle all the stress and confusion in his life, while pursuing filmmaking allows him some type of form of therapy and escape within the outside world.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Yes, yes…. if the opening paragraph (and this one) sound familiar it’s because I borrowed the lines from my reviews for both Ready Player One and West Side Story. It’s not because I’m lazy or anything, but it simply what I want to express on the topical subject matter (i.e Steven Spielberg). So…. without further ado…. being an amateur aficionado in the cinematic world of movies, I’ve come to appreciate (and admire) some of the great directors of Hollywood. While many will eternally debate on which one is the best, there’s no denying the fact that these directors (numerous and collectively) have proven to be adept in their crafting of feature films and bring powerful and memorable cinematic storytelling to both the industry and to moviegoers everywhere. Personally, Steven Spielberg is definitely in my top 5 favorite directors. Not just because of him being noteworthy in Hollywood’s upper echelon of actors, producers, and directors, but because of his quality in the films that he does (and the memorable stories that they tell). As the saying goes “the proof is in the pudding”. I mean, movies like Jaws, Jurassic Park, and E.T., are like stuff of movie legends in my time, especially since I grew up with them. Still, even some of Spielberg’s recent work, with some stating that he’s slightly lost his “movie magic”, have produced some great feature films to watch, personally finding Ready Player One, Lincoln , and West Side Story to be wholesome and quality cinematic stories to watch. All in all, Spielberg has undoubtedly become one of the most influential directors in Hollywood, a testament to his style of filmmaking and the feature films that some have been considered “timeless”.
Of course, this circles back around to talking about The Fabelmans, a 2022 character drama motion picture and the latest film offering director Steven Spielberg. Given the amount of praise and success that he received for his iteration of 2021’s West Side Story, I was curious to see what Spielberg’s next project was going to be, especially since both West Side Story and Ready Player One were big productions. I did remember hearing that Spielberg’s next movie was going to be a smaller endeavor with a more personal sentiment in presentation. After that, I really didn’t hear much about the upcoming film until the feature’s movie trailer began to appear in theaters during the “coming attractions” preview back in late Summer 2022. The trailer itself seemed to be to that earlier iteration, with a story surrounding a family and the passion of movies, which seemed right up Spielberg’s alley. Then there was a big film festival (I think it was the Toronto Film Festival) where a lot of movie were being screened early, including The Fabelmans, which had received a lot of praise and the “word of mouth” was getting around as a “passion project” for Spielberg. This, of course, made me quite curious to see the movie when it was expected to be theatrically released on November 11th, 2022. I did wait a few weeks after the movie’s initial release as my work schedule and holiday times got the best of me, but I was able to finally check out the feature during the beginning of December 2022. And what did I think of it? Well, I liked it. Despite some pacing issues and clunky narrative making in a few key areas, The Fabelmans is indeed so-called “passion project” for Spielberg that’s full of emotions, drama, the spirited feeling of escaping into cinematic endeavors. It doesn’t have the same type of broadness or blockbuster flourishes as his past works, but is very personal journey for the director to explore and tell through the usage of filmmaking, which one can always appreciate.
With Spielberg at the helm, The Fabelmans is indeed what many will call a “passion project” for the director and it clearly shows that it almost every scene presented throughout the feature. If anyone has grown up watching Spielberg endeavors (whether a classic one or one of his more recent pieces), it’s clear of his storytelling usages and filmmaking techniques that are usually implicated throughout his work. This can be seeing in his depiction of the film’s characters, personal subtext, commentary messages, and narrative direction. When immediately watching The Fabelmans, it’s perfectly clear that Spielberg is at the helm through the usage of those particular filmmaking mechanics, but deeps a little bit deeper with the movie sharing a very personal connection with him. How so? Well, for those who don’t know, The Fabelmans is (for lack of a better term) part autobiography and part exposé, with Spielberg sharing some insight into his own life and how that impacted his journey into becoming a film director, with the feature using the Fabelman family as an interpretation of the family dynamics he had and how he escaped into moviemaking to deal with such tension and melodrama heartbreak. At its core, the movie sheds light on one family and how they deal with several situations (both internal and external forces at work) and how they face each challenge, with an attention focus on first born child (Sammy) who deals with all of this and how he escapes into his passions. From moving the family clan several times (to different parts of the country), to dealing with antisemitism, dealing with high school angsts, and trying to manage personal passions with the sometimes-taxing ordeals with his family dynamics, the movie cultivates a very interesting and wholesome story, with Spielberg finding meaning in the quieter, character-built scenes rather than any type of bombastic or loud moments.
In conjunction to that, The Fabelmans also acts as a “coming of age” story, with Spielberg shaping Sammy Fabelman from boy to young adult and how he interacts with a variety of characters, including his family with a special interest concerning his relationship with his mother. This is especially made true with Spielberg’s flourishes and attention to detail, with the movie being penned by longtime collaborator Tony Kushner, who find special meaning to zeroing in on Sammy Fabelman, who acts a movie iteration (fictionalize to a degree) of Spielberg and definitely speaks volumes throughout the movie’s narrative, which weaves and navigates itself through family drama and filmmaking interest. Throughout his career, Spielberg has always managed to find (actors) and his characters to be likeable and genuine, which would make them easily to root for from onset to conclusion, with the feature finding a pleasant warmth and understanding to Sammy Fabelman, which (again) harkens back to the director’s personal life and makes for some wonderful storytelling moments. In the end, The Fabelmans, while not the most memorable hit for the acclaimed director, still manages to convey plenty of personality and human emotion into the movie’s drama, while giving Spielberg a cinematic platform to display a cathartic somewhat representation of his life from childhood to his upbringing. The film truly is a personal message from the director about his life and, much like the character of Sammy, captures the only way he knows possible of doing it…..by making a movie out of it.
Of course, the movie isn’t without expressing an interesting in filmmaking and the passion that Spielberg has for cinematic storytelling is a personal reflection in the movie with Sammy finding a passion for movies and how he nurtures it throughout his childhood / adolescent years of growing up. It’s quite interesting feat to see, with Spielberg homing in on such specific ideas and nuances in the picture, finding Sammy discovering the wonders of cinema at a young age and having ways to create such a personal world (controlling such imagery and framing it in a way he can express it) through the power of a film camera. The illusions between Sammy and Spielberg are unmistakable and it’s quite fascinating to see the progression of the film’s main protagonist character and how he dealt with such elation and pain throughout his earlier years of growing up, yet finding some type of comfort in cinematic storytelling. To me, it’s actually this moments in the film are the best part, with Spielberg gently intruding into Sammy’s passions throughout the movie and finding the usage of different film projects to be the most memorable that the movie holds. Scenes of film editing, staging cast members, finding the right camera angle, talking to extras and so on and so forth are some of the truly highlight bits and pieces in and out of the movie and is touching moment for Spielberg to share. In truth, The Fabelmans will likely find a beacon of reflection upon many artists out there (not just film makers), especially those who feel misunderstood by their family / loved ones, dealing with turbulent drama that surrounds them personally, and utilizing some type of form of “escapism” as a way of therapy and coping with such ordeals in their lives.
For its presentation, The Fabelman is a well-put together movie that speaks to the time period era of which the movie is set in as well as being a good production quality throughout. Of course, sense the movie is grounded in human realism and dramatic emotion, the feature doesn’t have the flashy Broadway-esque set pieces like West Side Story nor the stunning visual effect of a blockbuster dystopian society like Ready Player One, with Spielberg and his team capturing the 50s era of the United States through different facets of the time (from New Jersey, to Arizona, and to Northern California). Thus, the detail of wardrobe attires, furniture home décor, and other various nuances that help build upon the film’s movie world. Thus, the feature’s “behind the scenes” key players such as Rick Carter (production design), Karen O’Hara (set decorations), Mark Bridges (costume designs), and the entire art direction team, for their efforts in making the movie come alive in such visual and realistic way that feels genuine and life-like. Plus, the cinematography work by Janusz Kaminski (longtime collaborator with Spielberg) does some impressive work in the feature’s dramatic arena, which captures some very cinematic moments as well as several personal intimate ones that definitely speaks volumes for both the characters and the story. Lastly, the movie’s score, which was composed by John Williams, creates a very emotional musical composition for the feature that plays upon the scenes with such human quality of feeling and subtle through some dramatic points. It’s not bombastic or loud, but docile, yet moving to help build upon character driven sequences.
Unfortunately, there are a few pieces and parts that Spielberg hits when helming / shaping The Fabelmans that don’t exactly work properly, which causes this particular “labor of love” endeavor feel a bit problematic along the way. How so? Well, for starters, the movie is quite long and really didn’t need to be. With the movie clocking in at around 151 minutes (two hours and thirty-one minutes), the film itself is quite long and does certainly feel that way, the story slowly peeling away at Sammy, Mitzi, and the rest of the Fabelman clan with some highlighted most of their own personal struggles and triumphs that they meet throughout the years. However, the movie itself could’ve been easily shortened a good ten to fifteen minutes and still have the same type of bravado and personality that the prolific director wanted to achieve / convey in the feature. Because of this, the movie does also hit a few pacing snags along the way, with the project having several high and lows points that even Spielberg can’t overcome. It’s almost like the director sort of get a bit lost in wanting to tell this very personal story, which makes The Fabelmans have unbalanced in a few areas.
Coinciding with that notion, The Fabelmans latter half becomes a tad problematic because it sort of takes the narrative in slightly different direction. The first two acts keep the feature focused on Sammy, his passion for filmmaking, and the family drama throughout his life. That being said, the latter half of the feature sort of changes focus slightly, with Spielberg leaning more towards Sammy’s personal journey of venturing into a new high school and dealing with several teenage adolescent tribulations, including flirting / dating and antisemitism bullying. Of course, it’s still quite profound and handled well (well, mostly. There are a few problems in this particular area), but the starts to loose focus on the family drama element as well as Sammy’s passion for filmmaking. It’s at this point where Spielberg makes it more about Sammy and becomes more of a “coming of a age” narrative, which (again) is still good, but it’s also a bit jarring because he looses two out of three elements that make-up The Fabelmans and sort of gets put on the backburner during this portion. Thus, the overall narrative progression / path that the movie follows lacks the cohesiveness, which is a bit strange because usually Spielberg (as well as Kushner) are usually pretty good on crafting very steady narratives and directions for motion pictures.
The cast in The Fabelmans is (as whole) pretty good across the board, with most of the acting talent involved lending their theatrical performance to make these characters interesting and come alive with such realism and dynamics. There are a few that are handled in a rather clunky manner, but that’s mostly due to the feature’s script and / or their respective character limited screen rather than how they portrayed by the selected cast. Perhaps the best one that I found to be the most compelling in the movie is the feature’s main protagonist character of Sammy Fabelman, who is played by Gabrielle LaBelle. Known for his roles in Dead Shack, The Predator, and American Gigolo, LaBelle isn’t quite the household name that very one knows about and acts more like “unknown” actor in amongst his co-stars. That being said, that’s kind of good thing, with LaBelle not having a whole lot of exposure to compare his role in this movie to. Thus, his performance in The Fabelmans is incredibly well-done and (as of writing this review) probably the best in his career, especially since he plays the leading character role. As a whole, LaBelle holds his own in almost every scene that he’s in…..no matter who is paired up against in a scene with. There’s an innocent sweetness to the character of Sammy, who is caught between his passions of filmmaking and the tribulations of growing up from within his own family dynamics as well as in his fellow peers at school. This particular dilemma is beautiful showcased in LaBelle’s performances. That being said, I feel like when the movie starts to veer off into a “coming of an age” narrative that solely focuses on Sammy (and not his passion for movies or his family), it looses focus. Yet, LaBelle does shine through in those moments, especially since he carries those particular portions quite well in his performance. In the end, I really do think that LaBelle did a fantastic job in the movie and deserves a lot of recognition for his portrayal of Sammy Fabelman in the feature. Also, as a side note, young actor Mateo Zoryan (The Best Things in Life) makes for great introduction in the film as the younger version of Sammy Fabelman. Definitely holds his own and shares some touching small moments with actress Michelle Williams.
Behind the character of Sammy, the patriarch and matriarch of the Fabelman family are the highlight of the feature, with actress Michelle Williams and actor Paul Dano playing the character roles of Mitzi and Burt Fabelman. Williams, who is known for her roles in My Week with Marilyn, Manchester by the Sea, and The Greatest Showman, gives the standout performances of the entire cast in the film, with her portrayal of Mitzi is one of Oscar-worthy one. Williams display the fragile woman who earns to be seeing and expressive through her actions, even if it is a bit odd and strange, with the actress approaching Mitzi with a sense of “dancing the beat to her own drum”. Neither Spielberg nor Williams never makes Mitzi out feel that she’s totally selfish in her thoughts or completely villainous in her actions, but makes her a woman that struggle to find happiness and passion within her life, with Williams effectively showcasing her flaws and desires and allows us (the viewers) to empathize with her character. Whether through melancholy state of mind or joyous elations (and all the complexity in-between), Williams truly does shine in the Fabelmans as the whimsical passion driven Mitzi. She truly does deserve plenty of recognition through her performance in the movie and is probably the best of her career. Starring opposite to her is Dano, who is known for There Will Be Blood, 12 Years a Slave, and The Batman, and gives solid (yet more reserved) performance in the role of Burt. That’s not to say Dano underperforms or undersells his character or his performance….in fact he actually does an exceptional job in The Fabelmans, which anchors the movie in a more practical way. Unlike Williams, however, Dano doesn’t really have much to do in the feature, other than being the scientific and practical father / husband to the family. Still, both he (as an actor) and as his character Burt are a great foils to William’s Mitzi, and still gives a solid performance in the movie.
Perhaps the only weakness of the Fabelman family clan are the three girls that make up the rest of the Sammy’s siblings, which include Reggie, who is played by actress Julia Butters (American Housewife and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), Natalie, who is played by actress Keeley Karsten (Viceroy and Entanglement), and Lisa, who is played by actress Sophia Kopera (Scenes from a Marriage). Collectively, I think all of these actresses, including Birdie Borria (You and Pivoting) and Alina Brace (Sweet Magnolias) as the younger version of Reggie and Natalie, are rather good in the movie and definitely hold their own in several key scenes throughout. That being said, the movie’s main narrative doesn’t heavily focus on Sammy’s sister enough to make for a lasting impact, which makes their whole involvement in The Fabelmans a bit limp. Naturally, they are there and present in most “family” scenes, which not much beyond that and that’s kind of disappointing. Yes, I do get it that the film is more focused on Sammy, Mitzi, and Burt, but I would’ve liked to see more done with these three Fabelman siblings.
In more supporting capacity, actor Seth Rogen plays a part in The Fabelmans as Bennie Loewy, a surrogate uncle to the Fabelman children, Burt’s colleague / friend, and having a close relationship connection with Mitzi. To be sure, I was quite surprised to learn that Rogen, who is known for his roles in Superbad, Long Shot, and The Night Before, was going to play supporting character in the movie and I do have to say that I found his performance quite good. Of course, it’s no Oscar-worthy performance like he did with Steve Wozniak in 2015’s Steve Jobs (a role that I think is his best to date), but I think that Rogen held his own and felt quite well in the character of role Benny; never feeling out of place or out of character. Plus, who wouldn’t want the chance to play a role in a Spielberg film? In addition, actor Judd Hirsch (Independence Day and Taxi) makes for a memorable moment in The Fabelmans as Mitzi’s uncle / Sammy’s great uncle Boris Schildkraut, a former film worker and circus lion-tamer. While his involvement in the feature is mostly in one scene, it is quite a pivotal one that Hirsch commands and creates a very moving character for such limited amount of time in the film.
Other supporting characters, including actor Sam Rechner (Ruby’s Choice) as Sammy’s high school classmate / bully Logan Hall, actor Oakes Fegley (Wonderstruck and Pete’s Dragon) as Sammy’s high school classmate / bully Chad Thomas, actress Isabelle Kusman (Licorice Pizza and Sissy) as high school classmate / Logan’s love interest Claudia Denning, and actress Chloe East (Generation and The Wolf of Snow Hollow) as fellow classmate / Sammy’s love interest Monica Sherwood help bolster the character dynamics of Sammy Fabelman’s teenage high school life when the family moves to Northern California. While I do have some personal criticisms towards this particular portion of the film, the acting talent of these individuals are solid across the board. Yet, I feel that some nuances for these characters are a bit wonky, especially in East’s Monica “Jesus-loving” persona that gets a bit corny at times.
The rest of the cast, including actress Jeannie Berlin (Inherent Vice and Margaret) as Burt’s mother Haddash Fabelman, actress Robin Bartlett (Lean on Me and Shutter Island) as Mitzi’s mother Tina Schildkraut, and actors Gustavo Escobar (Instant Family and Peppermint), Nicolas Cantu (Dragon Rescue: Riders and The Walking Dead: World Beyond), Cooper Dodson (American Horror Story and Stay-at-Home Dads), Gabriel Bateman (Lights Out and Child’s Play), Stephen Matthew Smith (Miracles from Heaven and The 15:17 to Paris), and Lane Factor (Reservation Dogs and Ghosts) as Sammy’s Boy Scout troop friends….Sal, Hark, Turkey, Roger, Angelo, and Dean respectfully. These particular acting talents are limited (by design), yet, for their minimal parts in the film, all give solid performances in their respective capacities in the minor supporting players in The Fabelmans.
Family, art….it will tear you in two” a sentiment shared to young dreamer Sammy Fabelman, who is caught in between his family drama and his passion of moviemaking in the film The Fabelmans. Director Steven Spielberg’s latest endeavors tackles a very personal journey for the famed visionary filmmaker by translating the inner turmoil of a family’s dynamic and a young man’s passion, with the two intermingling with one another. While the feature’s pacing becomes problematic as well as some clunky narrative elements that come in the later half, the film comes out on top with a very emotionally charged picture, especially with Spielberg’s direction, powerful thematic messages, a special affinity towards moviemaking, a solid presentation, and some great acting (most notably from LaBelle and Williams). Personally, I thought that this movie was great. It definitely had its problems within storytelling and with an expansive length that felt quite long towards the backend, but I could easily feel the narrative that Spielberg wanted to convey within the feature. As I said, it doesn’t have the memorable flair as his earlier work nor the modern nuances from his recent endeavors, but this definitely a passion project for Spielberg, one that speaks volumes towards him and those who share the same mindset of dreamers, storytellers, and those caught amongst the troubling family dynamics and personal goals. Thus, my recommendation for this movie would be a very favorable “highly recommended” choice, especially those who love movies and can appreciate the smaller scale feature for some great character performances and poignant issues to tackle. In the end, The Fabelmans, while not the quintessential movie release from the acclaimed director, still ruminates (and resonates) for some palpable and compelling storytelling of family, art, and the perseverance of one’s passion.
Also, as a personal side note, The Fabelmans is my 675th movie review since I’ve started blogging. This is truly a huge and celebratory milestone for me! I want to give a special thank you to all my readers, followers, and fellow bloggers for reading my movie reviews and giving me this platform to share (with you guys) my views on cinematic tales.
4.3 Out of 5 (Highly Recommended)
Released On: November 11th, 2022
Reviewed On: December 30th, 2022
The Fabelmans is 151 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for some strong language, thematic elements, brief violence and drug use