By Lynn Venhaus
Dear Mr. Spielberg,
Your movies have given my family and I so much joy over the years. I was away at college the summer of 1975 when one warm July night, my roommates and I went to see “Jaws” at the local movie theater. You invented the summer blockbuster, and ever since, all your movies have been an event.
I introduced my children to “E.T.” first, and I still tear up every time I watch it. “Jurassic Park,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Schindler’s List,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Lincoln” — you’ve made some of the best films of all-time.
“Bridge of Spies,” “Catch Me If You Can,” and “The Post” are personal favorites, and your adaptation of “West Side Story” was at the top of my Ten Best List last year.
So, I had very high expectations for “The Fabelmans,” especially after viewing the “Spielberg” documentary on HBO. I know it’s “loosely based on your childhood, from age 7 to 18, and it explores the power of how movies help us see the truth about each other and ourselves.
Maybe that adage, “Never meet your heroes” applies here.
Because, while I find the performances exceptional and the production elements superb, your retelling of your ‘semi-autobiographical’ coming-of-age story isn’t as magical as your other films.
Yes, you followed your dream, but turns out your childhood isn’t all that extraordinary. Except for the reason your parents’ marriage broke up, your early life was like many other kids – divorced parents, dad moving because of work, an artistic kid being bullied and for Jews, antisemitism.
Basically, you had a rather “Leave It to Beaver” childhood, not as vanilla as many a WASP, but fairly typical — your parents loved you and your sisters, attempted to give you a wonderful life, and your dad was a genius engineer.
As a filmmaker, you were too close to the subject matter, and needed to get out of your own way.
When you concentrate on discovering your passion for filmmaking and finding ways to tell a story, now that’s fascinating.
But all that high school drama with the mean jocks, yawn. Except for the Ditch Day film, which really highlighted your gifts and how people are revealed upon observation.
But — two and a half hours? And the best scene is at the end! You stuck the landing beautifully – and that little nod to Charlie Chaplin’s The Tramp before the credits roll, chef’s kiss.
That final encounter on the studio lot gives the film the zest that was missing – and it was the spark that propelled your drive to be in the business.
It’s the best cameo of the year, no spoiler from me!
Your life as a golden boy of cinema has introduced you – and us — to worlds of wonder, and we feel like we know you.
The film is heartfelt and shows how much love you have for your family and the movie-making process. Artists must create and you have been able to make an impact on a global scale. Truly remarkable.
You will be remembered as one of the greatest directors of all time, and we see the effort.
I will wait for the sequel that discloses your early career milestones, breaking through in Hollywood, and the people that shaped you along the way. Now, that story may be the extraordinary one that I was expecting here.
Sincerely, an unabashed fan whose favorite thing is discussing entertainment, and thinks that all of life’s riddles are answered in the movies.
Back to the nuts and bolts for review purposes — Gabriel LaBelle makes quite an introduction as gawky young Sammy Fabelman, who makes movies using his Boy Scout troop as cast and crew.
Paul Dano and Michelle Williams are well-suited to play parents Burt and Mitzi, who bring up four children born during the post-World War II Baby Boom and moved the family from New Jersey to Arizona to Southern California before finally divorcing.
Williams has flashes of brilliance as the mercurial mom, a classically trained pianist whose concert days are past, but the longing isn’t. She’s in love with Bennie (Seth Rogen), Burt’s best friend, and they are eventually together.
When Sammy’s keen eye discovers a little too intimate interaction between the pair during a family camping trip, he’s devastated, resulting in viewing his mother differently. It’s a powerful scene when he shows, not tells, her what he saw.
That conflict is a major focus of the original screenplay co-penned by Spielberg and collaborator Tony Kushner.
A smaller one is his computer whiz dad thinking filmmaking is a hobby and that Sammy needs a more stable career pursuit, but that is a standard trope between artists and scientists. Dano’s quiet demeanor effectively contrasts with Williams’ more flamboyant personality.
Appearing briefly in a slight but showy role that screams supporting actor nomination, Judd Hirsch is an eccentric uncle who used to be in the circus and recognizes a kindred spirit in Sammy.
Young Sammy, who must react to his first film, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” in 1952, is played by standout Mateo Zoryan.
Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is splendid, so is Rick Carter’s production design, and John Williams has produced a fine score.
But, there is just something nagging about a film that I wanted to be great, but is just good.
“The Fabelmans” is a 2022 drama directed by Steven Spielberg and stars Gabriel LaBelle, Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Judd Hirsch and Seth Rogen. Rated PG-13 for some strong language, thematic elements, brief violence, and drug use, and run time is 2 hours, 31 minutes. In theaters Nov. 23. Lynn’s Grade: B
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.