Here’s a fable, man:
An old man, beloved in his village of Hollywoodland, climbed upon his rooftop. As the excited townsfolk gathered below, the old man said, “Hey, everybody, watch me fly!” He flapped his arms, jumped off the roof, and landed face down on his concrete driveway. As blood drained from his cracked skull, the old man reached out, and someone from the crowd handed him an Oscar.
This fable is of course about Steven Spielberg, one of our greatest living directors. Now in the sunset of his career, he decided to tell us how he came to fall in love with moviemaking as a young man. Promising a peek inside the mind of a wunderkind, abject reverence for Old Hollywood, colorful Jewish characters and a role for which Michelle Williams could finally nab her overdue Oscar, Hollywood threw all their wreaths around The Fabelmans before they’d even see it.
Then they saw it, and are now too embarrassed to take their wreaths back.
Maybe Spielberg is spoofing his own work, some thought, as the movie takes all of his tropes and dials them up to 11 for 2 ½ hours.
Or maybe it’s more meta than that: Spielberg has purposely made this movie feel as contrived, bombastic and hammy as the movies his teenage surrogate makes in this movie.
Then there’s this theory, backed up by the fact that Spielberg called in Tony Kushner to co-write the script: when you get old, you lose the ability to edit yourself, and your worst tendencies have a free-for-all. I’m going to go with this last one.
I’ve always been a big fan of Spielberg, and never jumped on when people called his work too manipulative or corny. Movies are supposed to manipulate us, it’s part of the thrill of going to the theater. No one knows better than Spielberg that heartbreak feels good in a place like this.
But wow, The Fabelmans isn’t just a corny scene here and there. It’s chock-a-block with eye-rolling moments. Every single line and shot is delivered as if it’s profound wisdom or an indelible comic gem, and almost nothing lands with the weight it’s intended to have.
Sure, some nice observations about artistic obsession and children navigating divorce get through, but they’re laboriously dug out of a bag of clichés, most of which Spielberg has exploited during his career: the gang of kids on bikes, the critical Jewish mother-in-law, the devout Christian girl who’s secretly promiscuous, the high school bully, the snarky little sister, the famous old director chomping on a cigar.
So much of this is just plain unnecessary. Judd Hirsch is trotted in for no reason other than to go for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. He’s there for two minutes and when I tell you he disassembles, chews up, swallows and digests the scenery it’s not meant as a compliment.
Then there’s Michelle Williams, whom we all know is a terrific actress. Watching her so stridently trying to give logic to a character Spielberg doesn’t understand is tough. The movie labels her a ‘free spirit’, which translates to having her erratically bounce from vaudeville hijinks to method depression. Even if the character was supposed to be bi-polar (which is never said) the mood swings feel like they belong in a different film. Most of Williams’ character’s screen time, though, is spent watching her son’s 8-millimeter films with the ‘Laura Dern seeing a brontosaurus for the first time’ face. And take a moment to close your eyes and listen to Williams’ halting, tremulous line deliveries and tell me she isn’t doing Judy Garland. We reeeealy want to give you that Oscar, Michelle, but you’re not going to buy off the gays that easily.
Everyone was excited at the idea of Spielberg turning his early life into a Spielberg movie, and exploring the break-up of a family that isn’t just a side plot to a supernatural event. But talented as he is, he just isn’t the kind of director who can deliver a profound film from this far inside himself. He’s the consummate showman, but this subject matter requires a lens that isn’t so deeply etched with the kind of contrived banter and impeccably-designed money shots he’s used to delivering.
Mr Spielberg, we love you as a craftsman and a master storyteller. But, please, no more oversharing.
Predicted Oscar nominations: 7
Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actor, Cinematography, Editing, Score