Loading...

The Fault in Our Stars Doesn't Soar Onscreen 

Thursday, Jun 5 2014
Comments
Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort in The Fault in Our Stars

PHOTO BY JAMES BRIDGES

Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort in The Fault in Our Stars

Cancer, so costly in real life, can be thrown around pretty cheaply in fiction, which is why most cautious readers and moviegoers are wary of it as a plot element. Call it the Love Story syndrome. But the presence of mortal illness has always been a staple of romantic melodrama, the X factor that raises the emotional stakes to levels either sublime or ridiculous, with a blurry line in between. In the hands of the right storyteller, a little cancer can't hurt: Stories about lovers separated by circumstance are evergreen; death is the ultimate circumstance; and cancer sometimes, though not always, leads to untimely death. In the plumbing mechanics of melodrama, the Big C makes a perfectly useful faucet handle: Turn it and the tears come out, or at least they ought to. In life, it's cancer's job to try to kill you. In fiction, it's cancer's job to make you cry.

Despite the movie’s flaws, Hollywood’s reliance on comic-book plots makes a teen melodrama most welcome.

In John Green's ferociously popular young-adult novel The Fault in Our Stars, cancer does its job like a pro. Colloquial, breezy and laced with black humor — the adjective "cancertastic" may not yet be part of the dealing-with-cancer lexicon, but it should be — the book is very much loved, and not just by teenagers. Without being too maudlin or sticky, it effectively opens up the cathartic flow. You'd think, or at least hope, that 35-year-old director Josh Boone's film adaptation, which hews close to the book, should do the same. But something gets stuck in the pipeline: The Fault in Our Stars doesn't quite capture the discreetly twisted humor, or the muted anger, of Green's book, and its problems can be attributed to a constellation of little annoyances rather than any one serious, North Star–size flaw.

Even so, I'm reluctant to damn it. In the world of today's movies, so reliant on comic-book plots in which People You're Supposed to Care About (but Perhaps Don't) are ignobly offed with a massive CGI flourish, there needs to be a place for teen melodrama. The Fault in Our Stars at least tries to fill it.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JAMES BRIDGES - Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort in The Fault in Our Stars
  • PHOTO BY JAMES BRIDGES
  • Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort in The Fault in Our Stars

Related Stories

Shailene Woodley plays Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 17-year-old whose lungs have betrayed her; as she puts it, they suck at being lungs. A "miracle" cancer drug has helped, but she knows her illness will kill her sooner rather than later. She walks through life slowly, an oxygen tank on wheels trailing behind her like the sick kid's version of an adventurer's suitcase, oxygen-delivery nubbins tucked into her nostrils. Her concerned-but-cool mom (Laura Dern, doing justice to middle-age moms everywhere with her laid-back grooviness) urges her to attend a church support group. Ugh. Really, Mom? But there Hazel meets a boy with a stunning smirk and a fake leg. He's lost that limb to cancer, but otherwise he's doing A-OK.

Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), 18, is a philosophical ex-basketball player with a tendency toward grandiose pronouncements. Just after their first meeting, he shocks Hazel by sticking a cigarette in his mouth — the look on her face says, "How could you? Around me, with my crap lungs?" But his shtick is clenching cigarettes between his pillowy lips without lighting them: That way, he explains, he accepts their power to kill him without granting them the power to kill him. Hazel thinks this is cool; she is just 17, after all. And while the attraction between Hazel and Augustus is instantaneous, she's cautious about letting it blossom into a love affair — she doesn't want to leave him with a painful hole in his heart when she's gone. Her resolve doesn't last, and it shouldn't.

Eventually, a novel, or, more specifically, a churlish novelist (played by Willem Dafoe, so perversely transfixing with his pointy little goblin teeth), brings them closer, leading to a highly dubious first kiss way upstairs at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Where else?

There's plenty in The Fault in Our Stars that's hard to buy, though that's not by itself a problem. Woodley is an appealing actress who gives her character some moderately believable shape, though she needs to be reeled back in her big, dramatic moments, when her voice hits the high, nut-busting notes of a hectoring chipmunk.

Elgort, set to be the teen heartthrob of the moment (he has already appeared in Carrie and Divergent), presents a bigger complication. His character is given to loquacious soliloquies that need to be looser, funnier, and Elgort can't navigate them without sounding annoying and pompous. We know why Hazel likes him, but he's the kind of first boyfriend you need to enjoy for a while and then get away from, not take deep into your heart as the truest love ever. And that, unfortunately, is where the story locks him.

Then again, The Fault in Our Stars is a teenage fantasy, albeit one rooted in the not-so-sunny world of cancer. And there are certain aspects of this half-dreamy, half-earthbound romance that Boone — who has made just one other feature, the 2012 dramatic comedy Stuck in Love — gets just right. As Hazel and Augustus get to know one another, he asks her what her story is, and she prattles on with a list of treatments, diagnoses and close calls. He stops her midsentence: "Not your cancer story, your real story."

Boone and his actors cut straight to the idea that cancer gives you an unwanted identity, becoming, if you let it, the only thing that defines you. All teenagers are looking for identity, but who wants that one? It's the third wheel in Hazel and Augustus' love story, unwanted and always hanging around. It's also the thing that will make their story really, really sad. Sometimes a good cry is just what the doctor ordered.

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS | Directed by Josh Boone | Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber | Fox 2000 Pictures | Citywide

Reach the writer at szacharek@villagevoice.com

Related Content

The Fault in Our Stars
Rated PG-13 · 125 min. · 2014
Official Site: www.facebook.com/faultinourstarsmovie
Director: Josh Boone
Writer: Scott Neustadter and John Green
Producer: Marty Bowen and Wyck Godfrey
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Willem Dafoe, Nat Wolff, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Mike Birbiglia and Emily Peachey

Trailer


Now Playing

Sorry there are no showtimes for The Fault in Our Stars on Thursday, July 24.
The next date is playing is Friday, July 25 .

Now Showing

  1. Thu 24
  2. Fri 25
  3. Sat 26
  4. Sun 27
  5. Mon 28
  6. Tue 29
  7. Wed 30

    Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

    Sponsored by Fandor

Box Office

Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, concert and dining info & more!

Slideshows

  • Emmy-Nominated Costumes on Display
    On Saturday, the Television Academy and FIDM Museum and Galleries kicked off the Eighth Annual exhibition of "The Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design" with an exclusive preview and reception party. 100 costumes are featured from over 20 shows representing the nominees of the 66th Emmy Awards. The free to the public exhibition is located downtown at FIDM and runs from today through Saturday, September 20th. All photos by Nanette Gonzales.
  • Cowabunga! 30 Years of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
    The COWABUNGA! - 30 Years of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles tribute show opened Friday night at Iam8bit. Guests donned their beloved turtle graphic tees, onesies and a couple April O'Neils were there to report on all the mean, green, fighting machine action. Artist included Jude Buffum, Tony Mora, Nan Lawson, leesasaur, Jim Rucc, Mitch Ansara, Guin Thompson, Stratman, Gabe Swarr, Joseph Harmon, Alex Solis, Allison Hoffman, Jose Emroca Flores, Jack Teagle and more. All photos by Shannon Cottrell.
  • Are Westerns For The Weak? Not According to "Sensei" Martin Kove
    Decades ago, the western film was king, with nearly 100 produced every year at their peak in the 1940s, and their popularity extending years beyond. But today, other than rare successes like Django Unchained or True Grit, the genre is not in great shape. Films such as Cowboys and Aliens and The Lone Ranger failed to spark new interests in the western. It's a tough nut to crack, but veteran movie bad guy Martin Kove -- most well known for his role as Sensei John Kreese in The Karate Kid -- is passionate about the classic American film genre and is trying to revive it. We spent an afternoon at his home talking about westerns and how to make the genre interesting again. All photos by Jared Cowan.

Now Trending