Mark Reviews Movies

The Fault in Our Stars


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Josh Boone

Cast: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Nat Wolff, Willem Dafoe, Lotte Verbeek

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, some sexuality and brief strong language)

Running Time: 2:05

Release Date: 6/6/14

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Review by Mark Dujsik | June 5, 2014

She tells a young man whose heart has just been broken—by a girl who broke up with him before he undergoes major surgery—that some people simply don't understand the extent of the promises they make when they make them. It's true and doubly so in this case, although the young woman who makes the statement—our protagonist—doesn't realize how.

The Fault in Our Stars opens with a promise of its own, as the young woman decries the sappy sentimentality of the depiction of cancer and dying in the movies and in trashy romance novels. She goes on to decree that this story—her story—is the truth. It's a promise of brutal honesty, given the severity of tone she lends the voice-over narration at the start. Quickly, the movie gives us reason to believe this girl: She is 17, and she has cancer, which started in her thyroid and has spread to her lungs.

Hazel (Shailene Woodley) isn't the type to sit around feeling pity for herself, and she isn't the archetypal damsel suffering from a terminal disease of those movies and books she despises. She isn't bedridden. She doesn't hold out hope for some cure.

Hazel is depressed, or at least that's what her mother (Laura Dern) and her doctor believe. She notes that the experts say it's a side effect of cancer, but she knows better: It's a side effect of dying. Hazel knows she is dying—not in an existential "Everybody's dying" sort of way but in a way that death will come in the relatively immediate future. There's nothing anyone can do to stop this process, so Hazel—oxygen tank in tow—keeps going.

The introduction of this character, who promises honesty about her condition and seems more than willing to offer it, is the movie's strongest section. There is blunt, unsentimental truth here. A lot of that comes from Hazel herself, whose sense of humor is as cynical as her situation demands. She lucked out once when she was 13, and she remembers her mother telling her to let go. At the time, she might not have fully realized what was happening, but that memory is now a prophecy. Now she knows what is happening, and she also knows that scene will play out again without the miraculous ending.

She keeps her distance from this reality through that humor, and the targets are easy: the cheesy movies and books, a support group where the leader plays guitar and insists they are sitting in the "literal heart of Jesus," and the various "perks" she gets from having cancer, such as having any wish she wants come true thanks to a certain charity. Hazel is such a valuable, worthwhile character that she doesn't need a counterpart, but she gets one in the form of Augustus (Ansel Elgort), an 18-year-old cancer survivor who lost his leg just above the knee from the disease.

He's the sunny sort who tells the support group that he plans for his life to have a meaning that will remembered through the ages. Good, old Hazel—wise beyond her years—reminds him that there will come a point in the history of the universe that no human being—no matter how important he or she may have been—will be remembered. They inevitability start a semi-romance, kept from a fully-fledged one by Hazel's belief that she is akin to a grenade that will destroy everything in its vicinity. Right now, she just wants to keep the casualties to a minimum.

The screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (based on the book by John Green), which does such solid work in presenting one character, falters quite a bit when it concentrates on the bond between Hazel and Augustus, which centers on an adventure in Amsterdam to speak with the reclusive author (Willem Dafoe) of Hazel's favorite book about what happens to the story's characters after its abrupt ending. At its best, their relationship feels like a negotiation to find a compromise between their opposing worldviews. At its worst, it feels like a morbid exercise in anticipating which of them will succumb to cancer first.

It wouldn't be so morbid if the movie had kept Hazel's initial promise, but instead, it focuses on cheery declarations of love and hope. We're not expected to believe them on their surface; they exist solely as a means for the drop to be greater when the floor inexorably falls out from under the characters. When it does, the result is exactly the kind of sentimentality that so greatly bothers Hazel. There are platitudes and a living funeral, and the character who will die before the end becomes sicker but in that falsely romanticized way that characters in the movies do.

It's telling that, apart from the flashback, there is not a single scene in The Fault in Our Stars that takes place in a hospital room. The movie wants to acknowledge death but only to a certain point. It ultimately only does so as a means of melodrama, and that keeps the movie at an emotional distance.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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