I was really looking forward to this. It’s always enjoyable watching movies that are a love letter to filmmaking and the filmmakers that make them. I loved Scorsese’s Hugo, and the black-and-white film The Artist. Yet Steven Spielberg’s autobiographical story is self-indulgent garbage. It’s being highly touted by most critics and there’s Oscar buzz. It’s the worst movie Spielberg has ever done, and one of the most disappointing films of the year.
It’s weird that filmmakers want to do stories of their life, and yet they often don’t convey the most interesting aspects of their childhood (Kenneth Branaugh had this problem with last year's disappointing Belfast). It’s odd, because Spielberg created a great movie with Super 8 ten years ago. We do see glimpses of the fun a kid can have making his own movies, both as a young child when Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) is so moved by The Greatest Show on Earth, he becomes obsessed with crashing a toy train on film. It was also a cute montage seeing how he gets each section of the train as a Hanukkah gift. When he gets a little older (played by Gabriel LaBelle) and does a war film with his Boy Scout troop, that’s even more fun.
Watching Sammy deal with being Jewish in a neighborhood without a lot of Jews, isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. He gets bullied and tries dealing with it the best he can. To top all that off, he realizes his mom (Michelle Williams) might be more than just friends with his dad’s (Paul Dano) co-worker, Uncle Bernie (Seth Rogen).
We also get the coming-of-age story, as a hardcore Christian girl shows interest in Sammy. His homelife (which we see the most of), is the least interesting. Mom is a tortured artist. She could have been a concert pianist and is always playing piano. Dad is a computer engineer with a lot of innovative things that bring in money. Dano’s performance is great, and Michelle Williams is okay, half the time. It is odd that she doesn’t look the least bit Jewish (which will bother Sarah Silverman, who has been ranting about non-Jews in those roles). She slowly becomes this free spirit that’s annoying. She dances around a campfire, and buys a monkey she lets run amok in the house. You combine that with the two younger sisters, and you start to realize – you just don’t care about any of these people. It also felt like Williams was channeling Judy Garland/Liza Minelli, which was odd. She was overacting in a handful of scenes and it didn’t come across as authentic.
The film is poorly structured and lacks a solid narrative focus. It’s also paced too slowly. It seems this two and a half hour movie (which needed an hour cut out), becomes something Spielberg should have instead just addressed with a psychiatrist and not forced upon us. Maybe Spielberg and co-writer Tony Kushner were just too close to the story to be as critical as they needed to be.
Since The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of my favorite movies, I enjoyed a scene where Sammy goes to see that with his friends, who are more interested in talking with each other. And I especially love the ending scene, which has things come full circle with a meeting with a cigar-smoking John Ford.
I can’t recommend this picture to anyone, as I think the few things I liked about it, they won’t even care about.
1 ½ stars out of 5.