Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars Movie Review

From the writers of (500) Days of Summer I expected much better in a romance film involving two teenage cancer patients. The Fault in Our Stars, directed by Josh Boone, is not cloying or mawkish, but it is oh so precious – relentlessly so. It is constantly aware of how perfect a movie it’s so desperately trying to be. I can even sort of tell from this movie that the source novel is likely similarly insistent on its sense of perfection in its characters and plotting.

The story is narrated by Hazel (Shailene Woodley), a seventeen-year old with stage four cancer that has left her with a lung ailment that demands twenty-four hour attention from an oxygen tank. Woodley is a talented actress whom I have greatly admired and here she really holds the movie together. Without her performance, exuding youth along with naturalism and a realistic outlook on her situation that you wouldn’t expect from a girl her age, the movie doesn’t work. But Marc Webb’s and Scott Neustadter’s screenplay pushes too hard on those buttons that make Hazel seem too intelligent, too over it, too cynical to go in for the platitudes and clich├ęs associated with her disease.

She reluctantly attends a support group meeting held in a church basement and hosted by a devout Jesus lover where she meets Augustus (Ansel Elgort), an eighteen-year old who’s already lost his leg to the disease and has little interest in the group apart from supporting his friend Isaac (Nat Wolff). Augustus ogles Hazel from across the room, announces he fears oblivion and not being remembered for anything and then Hazel gives him a silly dressing down about how all of humanity will cease to exist anyway so there’s no sense in wasting time on such a silly old fear. They have repartee! After a meet-cute!

The movie does pretty well by me right up until Augustus enters the picture. Then it just becomes too, too precious. The way he says he’s staring at her because she’s beautiful? Precious. That he insists on using her middle name and always calling her Hazel Grace? Precious. That they exchange favorite novels and discover they both really like her choice, a book about a young girl who dies of cancer? Precious. That Hazel demands to know what happens to other characters in the book (including the hamster!) after the main character dies? Fucking precious!

You see, Hazel isn’t satisfied with the abrupt ending of the story. Everyone else goes on after the death of a loved one. Hazel has parents, see? And some friends. And she wants to feel assured by some facile novel that they won’t just disappear when she’s gone? Why do they bother setting her up as so intelligent and mature only to give her such childish questions about a book? Surely this characterization starts with John Green’s novel, but Webb and Neustadter made the decision that she was worth adapting and then didn’t bother to give her more interesting opinions and questions.

Hazel really really really wants answers. The author of her favorite novel, Peter van Houten, is a recluse in Amsterdam and won’t set down any explanations in writing, but if she visits him… Hmm, do you think perfectly precious Augustus will somehow arrange for that to happen? So they go to Amsterdam with Hazel’s mom (Laura Dern), whose sole character trait is being the awesomest awesome parent who gives her dying daughter everything. Hazel and Augustus have an amazing and romantic dinner paid for by Peter (Willem Dafoe) and then they meet him t his home the next day. And if you couldn’t have guessed about thirty minutes earlier that he would turn out to be a crushing disappointment, then I guess you’re one of the fifteen-year old girls this movie was made for. So Peter is a drunk, a curmudgeon, and genuine jerk. He has no patience for two dying teens who want answers to their silly questions about his novel. And you know what the worst part was for me? I agreed with his stinging rebuke about everyone feeling like they have to pity people like them even though they are asking pointless questions. He’s right. The story ends when the main character dies. Beyond that event the secondary characters have no lives. Anyone who thinks Hazel’s questions matter must also believe J.K. Rowling added something to her work when she foolishly declared that in her head Dumbledore was gay.

Of course, while I agree with the content of Peter’s message, the method of delivery could use some fine tuning. Brow beating two terminal kids isn’t exactly acceptable social behavior. But the second Hazel and Augustus leave his house (actually the minute he was revealed to be so repulsive) I predicted that he would turn up again before the end in a surprising moment and manner to redeem himself. And he fucking does! The real question I have, because it just makes no sense at all, is why his assistant, knowing full well the kind of man he is, would invite two vulnerable kids into that environment? Well, she makes up for it by taking them to the Anne Frank house (thus answering my question as to why this precious little story didn’t take this precious couple to the more romantically precious Paris). Don’t you see how it makes such sense? Anne Frank was an optimistic girl in hopeless and terminal circumstances. Hazel is too! Literary parity!

I certainly won’t deny that this movie will be incredibly appealing to a certain demographic. There was not a dry teenaged girl’s eye in the house where I saw it. But even while I thought the sentiment was well-played and came by it honestly, it never affected me once. This is the most flaccid movie about people dying of cancer. I was never caught by the relationship between Augustus and Hazel. To be pulled in by a character you need to see some part of yourself. I saw nothing of myself, or any other living human being for that matter, in Augustus. He is entirely fictional, not resembling the behaviors, motivations, or traits of actual people. He is a boring, dull, thoroughly uninteresting character. In fact, Hazel is way too smart to fall for his whimsical approach to life. She should see right through that thin literary machination for what it is. It’s superficial. And that’s really it, isn’t it? This movie has nothing new or of any real interest or depth to say about cancer, illness, life, death, or even teenagers, but it pretends it does. That’s the film’s greatest disservice. It dupes all those crying teenage girls into believing they’ve witnessed profundity. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we dove head first into a paddle pool.

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