Film Review- ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ (**)

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The Flying Dutchman has never been so well represented on-screen.
The Flying Dutchman has never been so well represented on-screen.

 

“The Fault in Our Stars”  ** (out of 5)

Starring: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Mike Birbiglia, and Willem Dafoe

Written by: Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber (screenplay), based on the novel by John Green

Directed by: Josh Boone

 

When the credits rolled and the darkness lifted following “The Fault in Our Stars”, something fascinating took place.  The sound of hordes of tweeners sobbing created what I can only describe as a palpable, awkward tension in the room.  It was as if we’d all just witnessed cinematic history, or perhaps the ritual sacrifice of puppies.  Either hypothetical event would have been sufficient for the influx of tears, but neither took place.  This audience, the perfect prey for the predator that is this movie, was game.  Game for a soulless, Mola Ram-like filmmaker to forcibly remove the heart from every teenage girl and strum their chordae tendinae like a concert cellist.  Far be it from me to cheapen someone’s real emotion, oddly misplaced as it may be- but this is a film rank with the stench of insincerity, failing to capture our minds, as it is so clearly preoccupied with manipulating our hearts.

Extreme hyperbole aside, this wasn’t an entirely awful experience, so I’ll explain. Shailene Woodley of “Divergent” fame stars as Hazel, a young lady with terminal cancer and little in the way of positive life experiences.  Due to the relative success of an experimental drug, Hazel’s life has been extended, but as she puts it, she’s on borrowed time.  Her mother (Dern) nudges her into joining a support group, where she meets Isaac (Wolff) and Augustus, or Gus (Elgort).  Gus is a cancer patient in remission at this point, and is there to support his buddy Isaac.  Lo and behold, Gus takes a shine to Hazel, warts and all, and the two begin something akin to a relationship, centered around a fictional novel that she uses to make sense of her life.  Woodley and Elgort are fine if not awkward in their roles, in spite of a script that doesn’t play to the best of their abilities (see “The Descendants” for what Woodley is capable of).

Theirs is a different courtship- a pairing for the ages if you believe the hype, but is it?  We know she is doomed, and the film tells us as much.  There cannot be a happily ever after, nor can we have the typical meet-cute followed by a whirlwind romance.  Ergo, they fit the very definition of ‘star-crossed lovers’, which cinemagoers have seen countless times.  Is there anything unique about Hazel and Gus?  Sure, they have both been touched as youngsters by the cruelest of diseases, which should bring a gravity and suddenness to their romance.    Unfortunately, this script cheapens their relationship by creating a seemingly endless series of climactic, tear-jerking scenes that stand to simply leave one exhausted and confused.

A glaring example of said confusion is the film’s desire to show these late teens (he’s 18, she’s 17) as ‘adult’ figures, waxing poetic about the philosophy behind pain and death, attending community college and the like, but then treating their feelings as if they were children.  There is nothing more odd and off-putting in this film than the portrayal of a strong, mature connection between Hazel and Gus, then the perplexing decision to purposely, and without explanation, keep them away from each other at their most vulnerable moments.  One can understand overprotective parents (this film never makes it seem like that is the case) or a desire to ‘keep it in the family’.  It does seem clear, however, that both Hazel and Gus simply want to be with each other, and the film blatantly ignores both reason and explanation in this regard.  If, as a youngster I saw this film, I would understand that A) it is ok to run the gamut of adult emotions, ranging from love, intimacy, and death, but B) when the clock strikes midnight, my voice would be stifled, my desires ignored, my confidant kept away. Someone will likely tell me that the novel explains these oddities, and I will respond in kind by saying “that’s nice”.

Director Josh Boone’s film is at its’ strongest when the realities of cancer permeated the forced emotion.  Cold as that may sound, it’s true.  Watching these characters endure pain washes the sheen of ‘teenage wasteland’ from the film, even if but for a short while.  The unlucky couple’s brief moments of understanding about death and their illnesses also brought a needed poignancy to the film. Another scene consisting of a conversation about the parent’s plans after Hazel’s imminent death was particularly moving- I imagine such talks, while unpleasant, are necessary for both parties to accept the realities of life.

I’ve heard the hype behind this movie, and the completely unquotable quotables this offers (Okay, Okay is simply a lazier “You had me at hello”).  If this is the quintessential romance for the younger generation, then pardon me while I walk into traffic.  This film (I stress the term film to ensure I don’t invite the wrath of the novel’s legions), while competently shot, put together, and performed, seems to exist primarily as an excuse for the young adult crowd to cry in public amongst friends for two hours.  At best, it gives something of a voice to children with cancer, and could inspire to make the most of an awful situation.  At worst, it fails to reconcile the odd coupling of adult feelings with children’s lives, and inserts far too many climactic emotional scenes to the point of overkill- more than any film I can remember.  There is the possibility of something better here, like other, stronger films before it involving the same audience (“The Lovely Bones” comes to mind).   “The Fault in Our Stars” isn’t a completely silly, manipulative experience, but it most certainly is on the verge.

*note- I don’t quite understand the film’s (and by proxy the novel’s) title.  In a literal sense, I assume that author John Green was attempting to draw a parallel between ‘our’ constellations and the emotions we pin to them versus the realities of life, but that may be a reach.  The film itself, despite frequent stellar imagery, did not appear to broach the subject either.  It is fitting, in a way.  The title, much like the content of the film, grasps at straws.

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