THE FABELMANS is Steven Spielberg's semi-autobiographical film, but it really adds little new to what is already known about Spielberg. We see Spielberg as a boy creating scenarios, inventing special effects, and learning how to edit. In one short sequence we learn how Spielberg became Spielberg.
The film is actually the adventures of one family (much as Barry Levinson's AVALON is). It is allegedly a very accurate representation of the Spielberg family. The young Sammy (Steven under a nom de screen) is a character both obnoxious and likable, and the film itself is an interesting experiment, a different way of telling a story through home movies.
But how often do you see Hanukkah shown on the big screen? In the similarly-themed AVALON, Levinson sticks to secular holidays: Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Washington's Birthday, and so on.
In fact, AVALON is an interesting parallel. Both films are about Jewish families, and memory. But THE FABELMANS emphasizes the Jewishness, while AVALON avoids almost any mention of it. (We see one Star of David in the cemetery towards the end, and Some Yiddish is spoken, but even talk of concentration camps doesn't mention Jewishness.)
And in AVALON, the emphasis is on how faulty memory can be, not just people disagreeing as to when something happened, or if something was a train or a streetcar, but things the audience can see. We see Sam bringing home the piano in the pouring rain, but he describes it later as being a beautiful sunny day. Whereas in THE FABELMANS Sammy (the Steven Spielberg character) doesn't rely on memory; he relies on movies, which both lie (as in all the fictional scenarios he sets up) and tell the truth (as in the candid films of his mother).
And sometimes you feel the camera reveals too much, not just in the storyline, but in real life. (Or as they say, the camera doesn't lie--which of course it can.)
As noted, this is not a terrifically original or interesting plot, and Spielberg might be pulling from the plot more than there was in the first place. Once before, Spielberg made a comedy and it turned into 1941. In THE FABELMANS, Spielberg is once again Spielberg making a comedy of teenagers. Neither film works and both films were amazingly below expectations. Maybe his heart just isn't in it.
But Spielberg is a consummate director, as the nice understated touch in the final scene shows.
Released theatrically 23 November 2022. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Film Credits: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt14208870/reference
What others are saying: https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_fabelmans
Mark R. Leeper Copyright 2023 Mark R. Leeper