Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Movie Review: The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our Stars
Directed by: Josh Boone.
Written by: Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber based on the book by John Green.
Starring: Shailene Woodley (Hazel), Ansel Elgort (Gus), Nat Wolff (Isaac), Laura Dern (Frannie), Sam Trammell (Michael), Willem Dafoe (Van Houten), Lotte Verbeek (Lidewij).

The Fault in Our Stars is a film aimed specifically at teenage girls and presents a romantic worldview that I think only teenage girls can take all that seriously. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – every week we seem to get a blockbuster aimed at the mentality of teenage boys, so presenting this differing worldview at the very least makes The Fault in Our Stars a little bit different. It is anchored by a sensitive performance by Shailene Woodley, who touchingly vulnerable as Hazel, a 17-year old girl with terminal cancer who meets the love of her life with Gus (Ansel Elgort) – a cancer survivor himself, who lost a leg due to surgery. Their romance is touching and sweet – and overly earnest, and really doesn’t have much of a basis in reality – but then again, what movie romance does?

The movie is in the mode of all those classic, sudsy tearjerkers, like Love Story, where two people meet, fall in love, and then one of them dies, leaving the other one a wreck. These films are designed to elicit tears from the audience – although they are the ones that usually leave me dry eyed. While I have become a softy in many ways since my two daughters were born – and find myself crying, or close to it, in movies I never would have suspected would do that to, I didn’t really come close to crying at The Fault in Our Stars. The film is trying too hard to milk those tears out of you, and at a certain point, I simply resisted. It doesn’t help that much of the dialogue in the movie is eye roll inducing or that with the exception of Hazel none of the other characters are given any sort of depth or insight. They remain one note characters who seem to be there only to circle Hazel Grace Lancaster.

Woodley, it must be said, is quite good as Hazel – selling much of the even the corniest dialogue, and even making her rather childish wish to find out what happens in her favorite book “after it ends” seem like a reasonable request. The book in question is told from the point of view of a girl with cancer, and it ends midsentence. Hazel “gets it” – that it is meant to convey the girl’s death, as the narrator was no longer able to write the story, but she’s desperately wants to know what happened to the girl’s mother, the “Dutch tulip man” and a hamster. When Gus and her go to see the author, now a recluse living in Amsterdam, the result is not what she was expecting.

Ansel Elgort is likable and charming as Gus – if he gets the right roles, I can see him becoming a major star. The problem is the film never really gives Gus anything to do other than be likable and charming – even as the movie winds down. He is the inverse of what we normally get in the movies – which is a complicated male hero who falls in love with a “perfect” woman who “saves” him by being so damned perfect. It’s frustrating, and not overly dramatic – as anyone as perfect as Gus is in this movie ends up becoming boring pretty quickly. The supporting cast suffers pretty much the same fate. Laura Dern and Sam Trammell are thrust into the role of doting parents, trying to remain upbeat, while having sad eyes. Nat Wolff as Isaac, another teenage cancer patient, never really settles into his role as it requires him to change too much from one scene to the next. Willem Dafoe does have some fun being a pretentious asshole – but when they try to make him at least somewhat sympathetic, it doesn’t really work.

This review probably sounds a little harsher than I meant it to. The Fault in Our Stars is not a bad movie – not really anyway. It’s a rather sweet romantic fantasy, aimed at teenage girls who want to believe that no matter what their situation, they will always find “the one” – that perfect guy who “gets them” the way nobody else does. It works on that level – as wish fulfillment for teenage girls. If you want more depth or honesty, than I don’t think this is the movie for you, but really the whole thing works far better than it really should. It doesn’t reach the heights of other recent, non-action Young Adult novel adaptations like The Perks of Being a Wallflower or last year’s The Spectacular Now (featuring an even better performance by Woodley) – but it achieves what it sets out to do. If you’re a teenage girl, then the movie probably works. For the rest of us – not so much.

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