The Fault in Our Stars is designed as counterprogramming for audiences who don't care about big summer action movies, but in its own way, this tear-jerking YA romantic drama is as epic and overstuffed as any CGI blockbuster. Instead of explosions and chase sequences, you get emotional epiphanies and lump-in-your-throat moments. But despite being genuinely moving and featuring yet another very good performance from Shailene Woodley, it suffers from the same problem as its tentpole brethren: It's so relentless and overblown, leaving nothing to chance by throwing every trick at you, that it ends up being exhausting rather than cathartic.
Based on John Green's bestselling 2012 novel, the movie stars Woodley as Hazel, an Indiana teen with terminal cancer. Narrating her story, she relates the experience of living with a death sentence in a slightly wised-up tone, informing us early on that she can't abide the lies peddled by love stories at the movies. (She later has some choice comments about the typical narrative of cancer dramas.) The point is clear: The Fault in Our Stars will level with us in a way that fiction normally doesn't, cutting through the clichés to get at some core truths about what happens to real people like Hazel who are burdened with a terrible disease so early in their lives.
Initially resistant to attending support groups, she meets Gus (Woodley's Divergent costar Ansel Elgort) at one and is immediately smitten. A cancer survivor who lost the bottom half of his right leg, Gus seems to have been energized by his second chance, behaving in an ostentatious, almost theatrical carpe diem sort of way that makes him stand out from the crowd. Confident without being cocky, he's a sweet guy who tells Hazel from their first meeting how beautiful she is. They quickly become friends, but a deeper connection begins to form. However, her illness is omnipresent—she walks around with an oxygen tank and has to rest whenever she goes up a flight of stairs—which complicates any chance of a budding love affair.
The Fault in Our Stars was adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who previously wrote (500) Days of Summer and adapted The Spectacular Now, two really good movies about young people in love. This new film has some of the same cut-the-crap frankness that was a hallmark of those earlier efforts; as with Summer, there's a narrator announcing at the outset that it's not your typical boy-meets-girl romance. But although I haven't read Green's book to compare, the overriding problem with the film version is a certain narrative tidiness—a manipulative artificiality—that's supposed to be what The Fault in Our Stars is trying to transcend. It tosses out one series of clichés to embrace a different kind.
This is the second film directed by Josh Boone, whose writing-directing debut was the 2012 indie Stuck in Love. Starring Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Connelly, Lily Collins, and Kristen Bell, that film was a story about a family of writers all grappling with love over the course of a year. The result was incredibly likable, populated by unpredictable, sympathetic characters and some understated performances, and yet, there was a slight phoniness about the whole thing that kept it from feeling real. Instead, it felt "realistic" in a movie way: Characters had a quirky precociousness that seemed invented rather than authentic to the behavior of actual people.
Those pluses and minuses are just as evident here. Nobody in The Fault in Our Stars is as cut-and-dried as the stereotypical young-folks-in-love movie. (We're blessedly a million miles away from a Nicholas Sparks flick.) But whether it's the story or the characters, the film keeps undercutting its desire to be genuine by indulging in a preciousness that overwhelms the very real feelings the material generates. This is one of those movies that will make you cry, but also make you very angry at the same time; it keeps stacking the deck in such a way that you feel jerked around even when it wrings tears.
What keeps one invested in what's happening is Woodley, who between this, The Descendants, Divergent, and The Spectacular Now has firmly established herself as an empathy machine. Even when her films aren't great, she possesses an incredibly winning normalcy that gives her every action the aura of real life. (When I first encountered her in The Descendants, I was convinced she had never acted before, which I meant as a compliment. She seemed too natural to be a young professional actor.) Playing a character dying of cancer, she automatically generates a certain amount of audience goodwill, but this is a layered, lived-in performance that's absent of disease-of-the-week acting gimmicks. Hazel is a touch sardonic—partly as a defense mechanism, partly because, hey, she has cancer—but Woodley isn't afraid to also let her be a teenage girl in love, blindsided by the same puppy-dog giddiness that affects both genders at that age.
It's a good thing that Woodley comes across so believably, because her costar never quite does. Gus is meant to be a bit affected: He's flirtatiously chivalrous in a somewhat formal, old-school way to hide his self-consciousness about being a virgin with a metal leg. But Elgort can't completely crack the character. We see the affectation, but not always the insecurity that's underneath it. As a result, there's a structural flaw in the tentative romance that the characters are trying to build. For as much as The Fault in Our Stars talks about escaping the falseness of fiction, Gus is a walking cliché: the too-good-to-be-true nice guy who's going to charm our main character. The movie never comes to grips with that, though—until it does in a way that's fairly predictable near the end.
I don't want to undersell how affecting much of this can be. Even the supporting characters—like Laura Dern as Hazel's long-suffering, loving mother—are nuanced and thought-out. As a filmmaker, Boone has a knack for sweetness that's never glib. But for every subtle observation about life with cancer or being in love as a teen, there's an over-the-top moment or some ridiculously manufactured development that destroys the authenticity Boone is trying to create. This is felt most strongly in a subplot where Hazel and Gus go to Amsterdam to visit a reclusive author (Willem Dafoe) they both admire, resulting in a series of scenes that are so patently false and so obviously designed to sow the seeds for later emotional crescendos that you feel mugged and betrayed. (And this isn't even mentioning the Bon Iver-channeling score by Bright Eyes members Mike Mogis and Nathaniel Walcott that lets us know when we need to be feeling things at every moment.)
In even so-so action movies, we'll get a little bit of an adrenaline rush because of the wall-to-wall stunts and crashes. Part of us gets swept away just because of the frenzied environment the film creates. In The Fault in Our Stars, the story elicits tears easily, which is why it's frustrating that Boone works so hard to beat them out of us. We're with Hazel from the start—we don't need the overkill.
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