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Spielberg: Again with the Same Ol' Story

A Pat-Oh-Meter Review of "The Fabelmans."

Our Tuesday night streaming of the Oscar-nominated film was “The Fablemans,” written, directed, and produced by Steven Spielberg and collaborator Tony Kushing. Other than the brilliant “ET” and “Schindler’s List,” I have not been a fan of many Spielberg films. They frequently tell the same story of a small, usually Jewish boy or teen who is picked on by his peers. Or else his parents are having marital issues. The plots usually revolve around the boy learning to find his way despite the abuse of peers and his parents’ failings.

I’ve read several reviews written by far more accomplished writers than I, such as Manohla Dargis in the New York Times, whose review is titled, “Spielberg Phones Home.” I also agreed with Mick LaSalle’s review in the San Francisco Chronicle and a bit less with Matt Zoller Seitz’s review on Each says that “The Fablemans” is the most autobiographical of Spielberg’s films. And each seems to say, enough is enough, although reviewers have been saying that for years.

Evidently Spielberg’s mother was a flighty, creative, and unhappy woman. The character of Mitzi Fabelman, played bravely by Michelle Williams (Oscar?), reportedly represents Spielberg’s mother. Of William’s performance, Mick LaSalle suggests she was miscast, writing “… there’s just no way that Williams can make us believe she’s a Jewish woman from New Jersey living in the 1950s.”

That being said, “The Fablemans“ was at least an enjoyable film. And, since I am Spielberg’s age, setting the ending year in 1964 intrigued me. That was my high school graduation year, so I kept looking for flaws in the cars, clothes, setting, or script. Only thing I noticed was that Mitzi’s hairstyle remained 1950s bangs, not a 1964 teased and sprayed flip. I got a kick on Sammy Fabelman’s prom night when his born-again Christian girlfriend sprayed her teased up-do. And Spielberg slammed Texas a bit by announcing that this Jesus freak was going to Texas A&M University.

Spielberg is nothing less than obvious. The secret about Sammy’s mother longing for family friend Bennie was far-too-easy to spot. And when all is revealed, where’s the emotion? Not Sammy's or his mothers, but the audience's emotion. I’m asked to care about the feelings of a quirky teenage Jewish boy, who is obsessed about making movies, and his flighty, attention-seeking, in-efficient mother, but nothing makes me care. Why is that? Is it the writing? Is it the direction? Certainly not the actors. They did bang up jobs with what they were given. Sammy's father Burt was well played by Paul Dano, as an emotionally repressed computer geek who clearly loves Mitzi but can't change hats when he leaves work.

Other nicks and picks: I wish the role of Sammy Fabelman had been played by a bit taller chap than the actor Gabriel LaBelle, who is 5’4”. Maybe Spielberg shot him even shorter, but the actor seemed far more shrimpy than needed. We got the point. He was likeable enough, but most teenage boys wind up taller than their parents. Even Spielberg is 5'8".

All I know is, I miss the great films of yesteryear, films that still leave me joyous or bereft. This is no great film. Beyond Sammy’s victories, the mother’s “follow your heart” advise rings true but did not bring a tear. As Matt Zoller Seitz says, “That the movie leaves deep questions unresolved and presents all the related philosophical and aesthetic issues in a playful way (the final shot is a sight gag!) makes the experience quintessential Spielberg.”

Likewise, the San Francisco Chronicle review ended with this thought, “‘The Fabelmans’ is entertaining enough, but perhaps what’s best about it is that Spielberg got it out of his system. After this, he won’t ever need to make a film about himself or his parents again.”

One can only hope.

Overall, on the Pat-Oh-Meter, this rates of 3.5 stars out of five. I liked it but Bill was totally bored. Still, the Academy probably loves this film because it’s about making movies.

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