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The Fabelmans

Director: Steven Spielberg (USA, India). Year of Release: 2022

New Jersey, 1952. A young couple are trying to persuade their son, Sammy, to go into the cinema. He had been excited, but now he’s scared at the thought of all the big people on screen. His father tries to reassure him with incomprehensible details about the technology used. Then the queue starts moving, and they take him in, past a poster for “The Greatest Show on Earth”. As gangsters drive off with bags full of money, and trains crash, the boy looks on, wide eyed in excitement.

Later at home, Sammy tells his parents , Burt and Mitzi, that he knows what he wants for Hannukah. No, not a film camera – his father has one of those – but a train set. Seems like that by organising train crashes of his own, he will manage to control them and lose his fear. You think I’m interpreting this too literally? Nope, different characters tell us in oppressive detail that this is going on. This is not a film which trusts its audience to do anything radical, like think for itself.

Sammy’s parents buy him a train set, but not before giving it some serious thought. Where are they going to get the money from, now that they’ve got three children? I don’t think that this question is supposed to be ironic, but they live in a vast house, Burt is Big in Computers, and as the film progresses, he keeps getting offered bigger and bigger jobs. Even now, towards the beginning of his career, they do not live in abject poverty, and certainly have enough money for a train set.

Sammy shows a developing interest in dad’s camera and starts staging elaborate war films starring his mates from the local scout troop. He shows great ingenuity, especially with the editing machine that his “can’t afford a train set” father buys for him. Sammy puts pinpricks into the film reel to give the impression that the guns are firing real bullets. It is all very impressive, right up to the moment when we see that the footage is still of a group of boys playing at soldiers.

Burt becomes more successful with his computer job and is offered something bigger in Arizona. Mitzi persuades him to take “Uncle” Benny with them. You see, Burt isn’t just an engineer, he’s also a boss who can hire and fire as he pleases. Sammy films a family holiday, and when he watches the footage, he sees mom and Benny getting a little too friendly in the background. Cue pouting match between Mitzi and Sammy. When Burt moves on to a new job, this time Benny stays in Arizona.

As they enter their new Californian home, they all look appalled at what they have to live in. The house is still huge, but – get, this – it’s rented. And they have to stay there for months while their new house is being built. How shocking. Later Sam is persuaded back into film-making because his girlfriend’s dad has a hideously expensive camera which he can borrow. I’m not sure that the film is deliberately trying to alienate us from their sense of entitlement, but this is what it does.

In California, Sam (“don’t call me Sammy”) finds that his Jewishness brings him into contact with both the boys who want to beat him up because he killed Christ and the religious girls who find him attractive because Jesus was a Jew. At one stage when antisemitic bullies beat him up in the playground you wonder why everyone just walks by. It’s not that you expect everyone to be a social justice warrior. Doesn’t anyone even just stop to watch the fight?

The Fabelmans sometimes finds it difficult to cohere as a whole, preferring to offer a series of set pieces which are only vaguely related to each other. We have walk-on parts for Judd Hirsch as scary Uncle Boris and David Lynch in an eyepatch as John Ford. Both actors are allowed to rant and rave and give semi-meaningful advice, but it is as if they are in a different film. Other scenes (copping off beneath a massive Jesus, anyone?) are memorable, but work better as individual snippets.

The film as a whole suffers from this disjointedness, and some of the set pieces just don’t work. For example, in a scene towards the end, Sam triumphs over both antisemitic bullies who have been plaguing his life. He makes a film which shows one as a drunk loser, and the other as a sporting hero straight out of Triumph of a Will. Both are irreparably broken. This is a scene which has written by someone who has spent more time at the back of a cinema than dealing with real life.

There is also a scene which is either knowingly audacious or outrageously shameless depending on your level of indulgence for Spielberg. Sam’s sister tells him that his films look great but they are almost entirely populated by men. The Fabelmans goes on to look great, but with little insight into what its female characters are thinking. They are there on the screen, sure, but they are almost all projections of what the male characters think they are or want them to be.

This is to a degree unavoidable – The Fabelmans is a story told be Steven, sorry, Sam. Of course the women are products of his imagination. And yet there is something about the way in which the way in which we are told about Sam’s mother having mental problems or his girlfriend finding him a bit too intense, or the way his sisters occasionally pop up then disappear into the background that makes this a very male film, albeit that of a self-obsessed, nebbish man.

The Fabelmans is sentimental, manipulative and ties up loose ends a little too easily. In other words, it’s a Steven Spielberg film. Complaining about this would be like going to a Michael Bay film and moaning that there are too many explosions. More worryingly, it is a film that does not seem to be able to contemplate a greater tragedy than a well off couple falling out of love with each other, while wanting to remain friends. It aims low, yet still manages to underachieve.

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