THE FAULT IN OUR STARS Review: Demanding To Be Felt
At the beginning of this year, I wrote a piece highlighting my 2013 moviegoing experiences. I didn’t discuss the films I saw (the reviews take care of that), I considered the actual experience of moviegoing.
One of those experiences involved the first time I ever sat in an otherwise empty theater to screen a film. I’ve had two other instances like it since since then (one-and-a-half really; I had the room all to myself for The Raid 2, but for my second screening of Gravity, a friend was with me and we were the only two there).
Well, I’ve got a new screening first that has happened in 2014, and it might just make the year-end recap. I took my daughter to see The Fault in Our Stars, and of the 50-ish people in the room … I was the only man. No husbands, no boyfriends, no other dads, no friends-with-benefits. It was just me, my daughter, four-to-five dozen other ladies, and a sea of tears.
Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is a teenage girl living in suburban Indiana. She has two loving parents, a very nice house, and an oxygen tank that she is to carry with her forever because she has terminal cancer. At the urging of her mother (Laura Dern), Hazel attends a cancer support group in the basement of a local church. It’s there she meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort).
Augustus is a cancer survivor (at the expense of half a leg) and is at the meeting in support of his friend, Isaac (Nat Wolff), who has lost one eye to the disease and will soon lose the other. Augustus is instantly taken by Hazel, and wastes no time engaging her with his considerable charms. She is cautious, and keeps their relationship at a friends-only distance. He is persistent, though, and he shows the seriousness of his affections for her when he takes her to Amsterdam to meet her favorite (and quite reclusive) author, Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe). On the trip, young love blooms, but how long will it be before a flower dies?
The Fault in Our Stars is its own blessing and curse.
The blessing is that it handles well the three significant plots it has going on. And really, why they aren’t necessarily equal, none of them can be considered subplots; “co-plots” is a more apt term.
The primary plot, of course, is the story of the smart, pretty, funny teenage girl who is dying of cancer. Woodley is fantastic in this role. Not only does she convey the struggle of trying to manage a life-ending illness while in the prime of her life, she is impressive with the physical aspects of the role: having an oxygen tank in constant tow, fatigue after climbing steep stairs, living with oxygen tubes as an extension of her own body, and so on.
The second co-plot involves the budding young romance between Hazel and Augustus. Once again, Woodley is a knockout. She has to play hard-to-get with considerable pathos because she isn’t just being coy – her life is on a short clock and she doesn’t want to hand that sentence to a potential love, even one who knows what the disease is about. Elgort is charming and his chemistry with Woodley is genuine, and the structure of the relationship (she’s reluctant, he’s relentless) is very reminiscent of ’80s teen rom-coms. In fact, I would liken this film to 1989’s Say Anything …, but Woodley already starred in 2013’s The Spectacular Now, which is far closer to that John Cusack/Ione Skye film, especially with the Cusack-channeling Miles Teller in the lead. Still, Elgort and Woodley work well together.
The third co-plot involves the quest to find Van Houten. While executed well enough – especially with Defoe’s solid portrayal of a drunken louse of an author – this is the one that feels least genuine. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it contrived, but the obstacles that Hazel and Augustus face are almost a little too much in addition to the other two co-plots.
And therein lies the film’s curse: the weight of it all. A terminal teenage girl reconciling her own mortality is heavy but believable. A terminal teenage girl falling in love is heavy but believable. A terminal teenage girl seeking answers to lingering questions in her favorite book is heavy but believable. Each, on its own, could fill 90 minutes of movie. But all three combined carry too much weight, and thus strain credulity to its breaking point. More than once I found myself asking, “What other terrible thing could happen?” only to be answered within the next 10 minutes.
Where some high-dramas let their toes cross the line into emotional manipulation, this film gets a running start and hurls itself across that line by the very nature of its own construct. How there isn’t a product tie-in with Kleenex is beyond me.
There are other little things I wasn’t crazy about. Elgort’s dialogue sounds like it was written for a book. (I understand this film came from a book, but every line he speaks, no matter how well-acted, sounds like it is being delivered on an audiobook from the novel.) The first kiss between Hazel and Augustus could not have happened in a more inappropriate location, and the reaction of the crowd around them is equally mortifying. The end drives the maudlin home with a hamer.
Thank goodness for for Woodley, who is the film’s foundation that bears this weight and keeps it from sinking.
I don’t know what kind of future Elgort has, but the smartest thing the relative newcomer has done is hitched his wagon to Woodley. The two have already appeared (as brother and sister) in this year’s Divergent, and he will appear with her again in that film’s sequel, 2015’s Insurgent. As for Woodley, she continues to do nothing but dazzle. Either as the centerpiece of the Divergent franchise or as the anchor in The Fault in Our Stars, she’s making all the right moves to secure her seat at Hollywood’s elite table.