THE FAULT IN OUR STARS Movie Review – A Teens Only Tearjerker
Every film—in its own way, sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly—makes a promise to its audience. Usually, the promise involves momentary pleasures, distractions, and diversions: escapist entertainment by another name. Some films promise non-stop (or otherwise) action, superficial excitement (and superficial engagement), while others seemingly offer more, the chance to face our fears, anxieties, even our desires in the darkened, air-conditioned comfort of a movie theater filled with intimate strangers. Some, like The Fault in Our Stars, Josh Boone’s (Stuck in Love) adaptation of John Green’s 2012 bestselling novel, boldly promise to tell us the “truth” (and nothing but the “truth”), to share the intimate, particular, singular experience, minus the clichés, the predictabilities, and the formulas typical of terminal illness-centered dramas. That promise, uttered by the central character, Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), an Indiana teen suffering from terminal cancer, as she gently whispers to moviegoers via voiceover narration, proves to be a promise neither she nor The Fault in Our Stars can keep.
When we first meet Hazel, she’s waxing faux-poetic (and faux-literary), musing about—among other things—her terminal condition, but more importantly (for moviegoers, if not for her), she’s decrying the soft-pedaling, the fictionalization of cancer stories into neatly packaged narratives filled with wise-beyond-their-years characters facing their shortened lives and imminent death with life-embracing affirmations. She’s also obsessed with a book-within-the-film, An Imperial Affliction, a literary masterpiece (to her), by a one-time author-turned-recluse, Peter Von Houten (Willem Dafoe). After publishing one novel, Von Houten, an obvious admirer of J.D. Salinger’s life choices, stopped writing and moved to Amsterdam. Not far away for his fans, however. Hazel isn’t alone in obsessing over Von Houten’s novel, specifically the fate of individual characters he leaves unresolved at the end of the novel. Not coincidentally, the novel centers on a young girl also suffering from terminal cancer. Like Hazel, she’s also the narrator of An Imperial Affliction, simultaneously suggesting a parallel to Hazel’s story and experiences and foreshadowing for her eventual on- or off-screen fate.
Coupled with depression, Hazel’s obsession with the novel concerns her extra-supportive parents, Frannie (Laura Dern) and Michael (Sam Trammell). They figuratively push and shove Hazel to join a church-based cancer support group, which she dutifully does. Initially cynical and withdrawn, Hazel perks up when she meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), a cancer survivor. Once a high-school athlete (basketball), Augustus lost one of his legs to cancer, but remission, plus an 85% survival rate and, presumably, a naturally optimistic nature, makes him the perfect antidote to Hazel’s negative, downbeat attitude. It’s the cancer drama equivalent of the “meet cute” scene familiar to anyone (i.e., everyone) who’s sat through a romantic comedy (one of the most formulaic of genres). It’s also the first false, inauthentic moment in a series of false, inauthentic, a disappointment given the involvement of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, screenwriting partners who’ve twice proven themselves adept at relationship comedy-dramas with last year’s superior The Spectacular Now (not incidentally co-starring Woodley) and four years ago with (500) Days of Summer, a smart, insightful anti-romantic comedy.
The Fault in Our Stars turns—as any teen drama would turn—on the deepening relationship between a hesitant Hazel and a forward-charging Gus. She turns him on to An Imperial Affliction. He turns her on to videogames and lowbrow books (a novelization of a videogame, no less). He develops an obsession with Von Houten’s novel, either because his literary tastes have changed or—far more likely—because he rightly assumes it’ll get him closer to Hazel. With the abstract, twin antagonists of Time and Death always hovering offscreen, ready to pounce and prematurely end Hazel and Gus’ mostly chaste courtship, Green gives the ill-fated couple a literally once-in-a-lifetime trip to Amsterdam to meet Von Houten, courtesy of Gus’ unused wish with a Make-A-Wish-like organization. Meeting their mutual idol proves to be an ill-considered idea (idols, clay feet, etc.), but luckily Amsterdam offers them a picture-postcard setting to take their relationship to the next level. They even visit the Anne Frank museum, inserted into The Fault in Our Stars as a blunt means—one among many—to draw a comparison between the real and the fictional, between a young girl who tragically died too young (Frank) and one who will (Hazel). The opening of audience tear ducts is all but certain.
Eventually, The Fault in Our Stars returns to the who and when of cancer narratives, sporadically eliciting a genuine moment of pathos as Hazel, Gus, and Gus’ best friend, Isaac (Nat Wolff), contemplate a world without them and the stirring, moving eulogies they won’t here. Those moments never last, not when Booth and Green purposely offset every down moment with an uplifting one, usually scored to a respectful, tasteful indie-rock tune (buy the soundtrack, cry all over again). Then again, The Fault in Our Stars isn’t meant to be thought provoking or insightful beyond surface-deep pretensions. As always where Hollywood is concerned, the goal is to get an audience in, hold their hands for two hours whispering, “It’ll be okay,” while avoiding any real-world messiness (terminal illness and three-act story structure aren’t always compatible), drawing out the obligatory sniffles and tears when one surprisingly healthy-looking character or another moves on to the next world, and the audience can exit the movie theater with a good, cathartic cry behind them and dinner or a pleasant drive home in front of them.