The Fabelmans Movie Review

The Fabelmans (2022) Movie Poster

Movie Review

The Fabelmans

Reviewed by:
Luke Bonanno on November 24, 2022

Theatrical Release:
November 11, 2022

Writing has never been Steven Spielberg's forte, but he shows admirable restraint in telling his own story in "The Fabelmans", touching upon life's beauty and messiness in a way he hasn't quite before and with all the cinematic splendor you expect from him. Jump to review ↓

Running Time 151 min


Running Time 151 min


Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg, Tony Kushner

Michelle Williams (Mitzi Schildkraut-Fabelman), Paul Dano (Burt Fabelman), Gabriel LaBelle (Sammy Fabelman), Seth Rogen (Bennie Loewy), Judd Hirsch (Boris Schildkraut), Julia Butters (Reggie Fabelman), Keeley Karsten (Natalie Fabelman), Sophia Kopera (Lisa Fabelman), Jeannie Berlin (Haddash Fabelman), Robin Bartlett (Tina Schildkraut), Sam Rechner (Logan Hall), Oakes Fegley (Chad Thomas), Chloe East (Monica Sherwood), Greg Grunberg (Bernie Fein), David Lynch (John Ford)

“The Fabelmans” Movie Review

by Luke Bonanno

In his more than fifty years as a filmmaker, Steven Spielberg has worked in nearly every genre out there, most frequently adventure, historical drama, and science fiction. One thing Spielberg has avoided is autobiography. We've gotten a sense of who he is from the content of his often wildly successful movies and the many making-of interviews he's given. But having challenged himself last year to make his first musical, now Spielberg tackles another new task at age 75, sharing his upbringing and family life with minimal fiction in The Fabelmans.

It's virtually impossible to take issue with any Spielberg movie on a technical level. Even when his movies are somewhat boring (Lincoln) or just plain go off the rails (The Lost World: Jurassic Park), they still command respect for the director's mastery of image and sound. He collaborates with only the most gifted of crew members and all the commercial success in the world has not obscured his love of movies and his knack for making them a thrilling, visceral experience. In The Fabelmans, we get to discover the kid who fell in love with movies in the 1950s and proceeded to give us such cinematic triumphs as Jaws, E.T., the Indiana Jones movies, and Jurassic Park.

Spielberg takes a rare writing credit here, his first since 2001's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and only the fourth official screenplay credit of his long, illustrious career, adding to Poltergeist and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He shares writing duties with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, his collaborator on Munich, Lincoln, and West Side Story.

As Kenneth Branagh proved last year on Belfast, it can be difficult to turn your attentions inward and make your formative experiences resonate with the audiences who will be seeing your film from often wildly different perspectives. Fortunately, The Fabelmans is a much better film than Branagh's Best Original Screenplay Oscar winner, as Spielberg and Kushner are able to take the specifics of Spielberg's post-World War II youth in New Jersey, Arizona, and California and give them universal significance and relatability.

Young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) attends his first movie -- 1952's The Greatet Show on Earth -- with his loving father (Paul Dano) and mother (Michelle Williams).

The film opens around Christmas 1952, when a blue-eyed Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) attends his first movie -- Cecil B. DeMille's since-disparaged Best Picture winner The Greatest Show on Earth -- with his loving father (Paul Dano) and mother (Michelle Williams). The drama set behind the scenes of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus renders Sammy wide-eyed and speechless and one particularly exhilarating scene of a car stuck on the train tracks causing a crash inspires Sammy's Hannukah gift wish -- a model train -- and plants the seeds of passion and creativity that will define Steven, er, Sammy's life.

Spielberg's coming of age is presented with the warm glow of nostalgia and we soon jump to his teenage years (with Gabriel LaBelle taking over the protagonist role). Sammy's love of making movies develops and evolves. He advances from a simple 8mm camera to a more complex 16mm one. He wows his fellow Boy Scouts with his imaginative amateur WWII drama and both of his parents, who encourage his passion to different degrees.

The Fabelmans crams a lot into its epic 2 1/2-hour runtime. Most of it is compelling and rewarding. A stretch late in the second hour feels like an altogether different and far less interesting movie, as a new-to-California Sammy faces both antisemitic bullying from peers and prosemitic romantic advances from a Jesus-loving classmate. Although not without some entertainment value, these turns feel false and like filler storylines of an hour-long television series. There's probably some selective revisionism going on, with Sammy remaining unbelievably free of foibles throughout.

The movie never goes all in on any of its threads, which makes it more realistic and complex. One of the bigger developments is Sammy's discovery that his parents' marriage is not what it seems to be. As improbable as it seems that footage from one of his amateur movies would be a smoking gun, this earth-shaking revelation hardly feels like something Spielberg would invent or embellish. His parents' divorce has shaped a number of his films, including E.T. and Catch Me If You Can and you can tell Spielberg is still trying to process it in a way that makes sense to him.

It is unfortunate but probably intentional that neither of Spielberg's parents lived long enough to see this long-gestating project come to fruition. The director first spoke of this film back in 1999 when he said his younger sister Anne was to write the screenplay and he expressed reservations over how his parents would receive it. While his parents lived to 97 and 103, their recent deaths might explain why they are portrayed with fondness, even though Sammy's mom is almost tragically whimsical and at one point strikes the teenager on his back with great gusto and instant visual evidence. Authentic autobiography can be so difficult and Spielberg's screenplay never approaches the lofty heights of Noah Baumbach's personal writing. Nor does The Fabelmans find the transcendent quality of Alfonso Cuaron's Roma, a beautiful film that seems to have started this current trend of filmmakers telling their own stories.

Teenaged Sam Fabelman (Gabrielle LaBelle) grows increasingly passionate about making movies.

Like any Spielberg film, The Fabelmans gives us much to marvel at technically, which gives it a great shot at leading the pack when Academy Award nominations are announced in late January. This could very well be the penultimate score we get from John Williams, collaborating with Spielberg for the twenty-ninth time here. The 90-year-old declared he might be retiring after scoring the fifth Indiana Jones movie, which will open next year as the first in the franchise not directed by Spielberg (James Mangold mans the helm). Williams will almost certainly picking up his 53rd Oscar nomination for his subtle work here and it's easy to imagine his sixth win coming as a well-deserved lifetime achievement award of sorts.

Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and editor Michael Kahn extend their legacies of Spielberg collaboration and both serve the film splendidly, with Sarah Broshar (Ready Player One, The Post) sharing editing credit with the 91-year-old Kahn. Kaminski gets a laugh at the end of the film by punctuating an arresting scene in which Spielberg gets to meet one of his idols, legendary director John Ford (David Lynch, sporting an eyepatch and nearly getting upstaged by a cigar).

While the acting across the board is very good, the biggest standout is one with very little screentime. Judd Hirsch, 87, shows up for about three minutes as Great Uncle Boris, a colorful tale-telling lion tamer who shows up to sit shiva with the family after Sammy's grandmother dies. It's a powerful and lively little sequence that the Academy would be remiss to overlook, although its brevity might make it difficult to pick over a more substantial role competing in the same category. While LaBelle is great in the lead role and bears a tremendous resemblance to the young Spielberg, a more likely second Oscar acting nominee would be Williams, who has a showy role and adds to a stellar body of work. Universal's decision to campaign her in the Lead Actress category rather than Supporting invites some debate.

The Fabelmans appears to be conceived as some kind of crowning achievement to perhaps cinema's highest-achieving career, but it is impossible for a low-key coming of age drama to have the cinematic impact of otherworldly visitors, the Holocaust, dinosaurs, and World War II. And it does not. But The Fabelmans cracks my Top 10 Spielberg-Directed movies list on a single viewing and that is no small feat out of such a distinguished pool. Writing has never been Spielberg's forte, but he shows admirable restraint in telling his own story, touching upon life's beauty and messiness in a way he hasn't quite before and with all the cinematic splendor you expect from him.

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