The Fault in Our Stars (2012) / Drama-Romance
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements, some sexuality and brief strong language
Running Time: 125 min.
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Laura Dern, Nat Wolff, Sam Trammell, Willem Dafoe, Lotte Verbeek, Mike Birbiglia
Cameo: Stephen King (voice)
Director: Josh Boone
Screenplay: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber (based on the book by John Green)
Review published June 7, 2014
John Green's best-selling 2012 novel of the same name is given a faithful adaptation with The Fault in Our Stars, which tells the tale of two teenagers affected with cancer who fall in love. Set in Indianapolis (Pittsburgh substitutes), Shailene Woodley (Divergent, The Spectacular Now) plays 17-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster, who has survived four years thus far after being diagnosed with terminal cancer of her thyroid that has infected her lungs. Hazel is aggressively pursued by 18-year-old Augustus 'Gus' Waters (Elgort, Carrie), a member of her weekly cancer support group. One of his legs has been amputated, and he's been diagnosed as cancer-free ever since, but he has retained his 'carpe diem' attitude to life, which he tries to infuse into the more cynical-to-the-possibility-of-love Hazel, who is trying to minimize the casualties incurred when she passes.
Although the film, directed by Josh Boone (Stuck in Love), starts off with a voice-over narration by Hazel that this story is more like how real life plays out than those other stories (Say Anything in particular seems to be called out), it quickly jettisons any claim to reality once the character of Gus is introduced, a character so manufactured to woo an introverted girl that he makes Lloyd Dobler seem like a quirk-less wallflower. Ansel Elgort, who played Woodley's brother in Divergent, gets to play her would-be boyfriend here, and though his performance is fine for what it is, this is the kind of eighteen-year-old that doesn't exist in the real world, and barely exists even in the world of fiction.
Nevertheless, as manufactured as the characters themselves seem to be, the performances by the leads in key moments sell scenes wholesale. Shailene Woodley proves yet again that Jennifer Lawrence isn't the only actress of her generation with the chops to win an Oscar; Woodley already has one nomination under her belt. But she is really in her zone here, exuding both likeability and sympathy in equal measure, and never strikes a dishonest chord. While Gus is the kind of guy that many will struggle to like, at least for a while, because of his forced insincerity (once you realize it's all a defense mechanism, his shtick becomes a bit more tolerable), Hazel just makes you want to give her a hug from the get go, and you'd expect that she'd hug you right back even harder. Laura Dern (The Master, Little Fockers) also adds pathos to the mix as Hazel's long-suffering mother, who struggles to remain optimistic in her attitude to knowing she could lose her daughter on any given day.
Though the film deals with difficult subject matter, it should be stated that most of the film is actually quite light and sweet, with the ultimate message that, despite imminent death, that life can indeed go on, and to make the best one can of a trying situation. The tearjerker elements do eventually come, and though they seem to be as fabricated for maximum impact as the rest of the movie, I can't deny that they aren't effective in tugging at one's heartstrings; you may find yourself shedding a tear even as you roll your eyes at how manipulative the writing tends to be.
A subplot to the film involves Hazel's obsession with a book written by a reclusive author living in Amsterdam named Peter Van Houten, whom Gus corresponds with through email in order to get answers to Hazel's various questions about the book's abrupt ending. The two teens eventually do meet Van Houten, but definitely aren't expecting what they find on the other side of the pond. Nor will we, as his character, portrayed by Willem Dafoe (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Out of the Furnace), seems wildly out of place in this story. He's supposed to deliver poignancy but ends up taking the wind out of the film's emotional sails just about every time he is referred to. His unwelcome reintroduction into the story late in the proceedings nearly derails the potency of the film's weepiest of scenes.
Despite the contrived nature of the story, some of the writing can be effective at times, often lifted verbatim from Green's novel ("Depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying." is one of the several memorably pithy lines). Even if there are many uneven elements to the story, and it does run a bit long, it hits its marks when it needs to, and it is recommended for those who are going to the movies looking for a good cry. It will deliver.
©2014 Vince Leodiv>