A while back, I saw a Twitter post that speculated on the effect that good marketing has on the box office. The trailer for Violent Night made a clear and well-crafted pitch, and that movie was pretty much the only one to stay in multiplexes between the respective sequels of Black Panther and Avatar. Meanwhile, the trailer for The Fabelmans was a shapeless pile of sentimental slop and that movie bombed upon release.
I’d like to submit another possible explanation: Violent Night actually had way more heart and Christmas spirit than we’d been led to believe, so it offered something more beyond the initial marketing hook. By contrast, The Fabelmans was marketed as an autobiographical movie (only the names have changed) produced/directed/co-written by Steven Spielberg, with Paul Dano, Michelle Williams, and Seth Rogen starring as his surrogate parent figures. That’s it. That’s the entire movie.
So, you can either pay for two and a half hours of Spielberg walking us through his teenage years, or you can go on YouTube and get the same experience from a two-and-a-half-minute trailer. Which one would you pick?
Of course it isn’t a bad movie, strictly speaking. Paul Dano disappears into his role, Michelle Williams is magnificent, and Seth Rogen… well, he still can’t act, but he brings a kind of irreverent comic relief that the film badly needed. Judd Hirsch only gets one scene, but that includes a showstopping monologue to play what’s effectively the Ghost of Christmas Future. And of course we can’t forget the great David Lynch himself, poking his head in at the very end for a speaking cameo as the legendary filmmaker John Ford.
And what of Gabriel LaBelle, here playing the lead role? Well, the filmmakers did a spellbinding job of turning him into a dead ringer for a young Spielberg. In fact, they may have done too good a job. LaBelle did such an uncanny job emulating the grandmaster that I couldn’t even see LaBelle’s performance, only Spielberg pulling the strings.
Speaking of which, Spielberg’s evil genius has always been his sentimentality. With rare exceptions, Spielberg makes happy crowd-pleasing movies that leave everybody feeling warm and fuzzy without making anyone too uncomfortable or asking anyone to think too hard. That’s what he’s legendarily great at.
(Side note: I know everyone will point to Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan as exceptions. I would counter that both of those movies are about primarily about people who survived the events of WWII. Thus while both films may have been loaded with death and trauma, they ultimately ended on an uplifting note.)
And now he’s applying that same touch with decades of industry-changing experience toward a movie about his teenage years. It’s every bit as cloying and derivative and gob-smackingly beautiful as it sounds.
Is the movie self-indulgent? You bet your ass. But again, Spielberg has made so many all-time great movies over so many decades, he’s earned a bit of self-indulgence. Moreover, if Steven Freaking Spielberg wants to share his wisdom about the filmmaking craft and why movies matter, attention must be paid.
Furthermore, Spielberg is close to 80 years old by this point. While I certainly wish him the best of health and happiness (His father passed away in 2020 at the age of 103, so genetics are definitely on his side.), the unfortunate fact remains that Spielberg only has so many more movies and years left in him. If he really wanted to make a movie in tribute to his parents and his early years while he was still able to do so, that’s frankly understandable.
Perhaps most importantly, the film itself explains why Spielberg felt compelled to make the film. The central conceit of Sam Fabelman (Spielberg’s young cinematic counterpart) and his development arc throughout the movie is that Sam uses the medium of cinema to exert some measure of control over his fears and emotions. Through the act of engineering special effects and production design tricks, he can break a problem or a phobia into something more manageable. The act of filming and editing is his way of making sense of the world, and it’s the only way this scrawny and withdrawn Jewish outcast really knows how to express himself.
So what we’ve got here is a grandmaster filmmaker in his twilight years looking back at how and why it all got started. Additionally, it bears repeating that his father died in 2020 while his mother passed away in 2017, and I’m sure Spielberg was grieving with his family the whole time. What we’re looking at here is Steven Spielberg working through all these thoughts and anxieties and emotions the only way he’s ever known how: Through film.
The problem I keep running into with The Fabelmans is that as much as it’s a heartfelt movie made with talent to spare, the fact remains that this is principally an autobiographical film made by Steven Spielberg. Removed from that context — or for those filmgoers who don’t care about that context — the film has precious little to offer. It’s overlong at two-and-a-half hours, the plot is more or less a boilerplate teen coming-of-age tale, and there’s something inherently pretentious about an Oscar-bait movie that’s all about the magic and importance of cinema.
Ultimately, this month got thoroughly dominated by Wakanda Forever, a strong year for awards contenders is quickly wrapping up, and anything hitting multiplexes in the wake of Avatar: The Way of Water is a studio write-off. In the final analysis, that’s the only context that matters right now. An Oscar contender that isn’t red fucking hot has already missed its window, and a film competing for box office dollars against Wakanda and the goddamn Na’vi has already lost.
In this hyper-competitive month — and from now until freaking March, in all probability — anything less than the absolute best of the best would be better off direct-to-streaming than in the multiplexes. The Fabelmans is nowhere near strong enough or groundbreaking enough to pass that kind of muster.