I knew enough not to expect aliens or dinosaurs from Stephen Spielberg’s biopic, but I was hoping there might be at least a shark or a Devil’s Tower made of mashed potatoes. The Fablemans takes the director’s own life story and makes it his most personal film yet, although his earlier works such as E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind have always drawn on elements of his background for plot points. Spielberg had this to say about the movie he was writing and directing:
“I started seriously thinking, if I had to make one movie I haven’t made yet, something that I really want to do on a very personally atomic level, what would that be? And there was only one story I really wanted to tell . . . which is, when does a young person in a family start to see his parents as human beings?”
He had a lot of interesting background material, from his obsession with filming train crashes and trying to create feature length films with a Super8 camera in order to win a Boy Scout badge. His mother (Michele Williams) is quirky and dramatic and supports his love of filmmaking—she urges him to pursue his passion; while his father (Paul Dano) is the complete opposite and feels his son’s hobby need to be left behind so that he can focus on school and the future. His father works on the first computers being developed by IBM, and the family home it littered with broken television sets that he plans on repairing. It’s a nice touch, and apparently the production design was meticulously researched so that the family home and all the props and details were exact replicas of where the actual Spielbergs lived.
I’m a huge fan of Spielberg’s movies and was greatly anticipating this one, yet this depiction of his childhood and broken family was a big letdown for me. It seemed almost too ordinary, with the complicated, artistic mother and the silent dad who stands by the wayside and watches her have an affair with his best friend. The movie felt like it was two separate films; the first half with young Sammy as the family moved around and he explored his love of film was engaging and had some fine moments. But once Sammy has moved to California and become a teenager, it felt like it suddenly it turned into American Graffiti with cliché moments of school bullies and first love. There is one scene where Judd Hirsch as his Great Uncle Boris comes for a funeral and berates the young man about what you must sacrifice for art even though it may not be what his family wants. Hirsch chews up the scenery and expounds on his theories, but the scene feels over the top in comparison to the rest of the movie.
I didn’t feel any of the glow I usually get from one of Spielberg’s movies until the very last scene; Sammy is allowed to meet director John Ford in his office (a quick, wonderful performance by David Lynch), and Ford lectures him on why the horizon location can make or break a film. It’s only when the line is at the bottom of the shot that it gets interesting. As Sammy walks away from the meeting, the final medium shot of the film has a nifty camera adjustment where it breaks the fourth wall and moves the horizon line down. That final moment made the film for me—I wish the rest of the movie had made the same adjustment.
The Popcorn Kernels of Truth give this film Two Kernels. Maybe wait until June when the next Indiana Jones film comes out.