25 June 2014

Filmbook: "The Fault In Our Stars" (2014)

I didn't head out to see this movie with All The Teens, for reasons I can share below, but it's for the best.

This movie had two problems it doesn't share with the book: First, Ansel Elgort, who plays love interest Augustus Waters, can't pull off the kind of smart-aleck-yet-sexy '80s characterization that the movie needs him to do. He either comes off as someone rattling off lines he doesn't understand, or as a creep. Neither helps his case as the fellow cancer survivor who sweeps Hazel off her feet. Gus' lines are mostly taken from the book (from what I remember), but while book-Gus is improbable yet charming, movie-Gus punctuates everything with a leer or a smirk. The one time I thought it worked for him (mild spoiler ahoy) is in the travel sequence, when Hazel says "We're just friends" and Gus says "She is, I'm not." He sold that line but many others seemed kind of beyond them. Nothing against the guy, but I think he was cast more for his ability to be a blank palette for teenage girls to project their interest onto than for his own skills. His chemistry with Woodley is fine, but in his verbal moments I was reminded of last summer's "The Spectacular Now," a much better movie featuring an actor much more up to the task of banter (Miles Teller).

The second problem is probably more subjective, if possible, but here goes: THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, the book, works in part because it pulls against the sentimentality of the person-with-cancer subgenre. Being narrated by Hazel, who tends to be blunt and resist being classified as a saintly patient or a martyr, the book is able to cut through those subgenre elements quickly. Apart from a sprinkling of voiceover, the movie doesn't have that, and while it's a good deal less sentimental than your Walks to Remember or your Notebooks, it is constantly trying to be a sappy, soppy, weepy, gummy Hollywood Cancer Flick. There's a moment when one character accuses Hazel and Gus, our young lovers, of only wanting to get their way, of living in a world where they always get their way due to their protected status. They protest: No! That's not how they live at all! But the movie betrays them in that moment and indulges them there, and later, so that they do get the important moments to round out their story, if not the ending they might have scripted.

Throughout, the tearjerking quality that Hazel resents drowning out her own story is constantly leaking out at the seams, from too-on music cues to super-clumsy dialogue. It made its emotional peaks feel cheap and ordinary. (I'm thinking, especially, of the scene on the park bench.) And believe me, I went into this movie primed to cry, having spent a whole weekend trying not to cry. I was almost looking forward to it, the way that you hesitate in a winter month before getting into the shower because you know you'll just be freezing when you get out, but at least in the middle there you will be comforted in a way. Forget America needing a catharsis; I needed one. I didn't get it from this movie, and I have to lay that at the feet of director Josh Boone, because the book made me feel differently.

Woodley's performance is very good, along with Laura Dern's as her mother and Mike Birbiglia's as an over-eager youth counselor. But I probably won't remember this movie much when I look back at the end of the year, never mind beyond that.

Filmbook verdict: Read this book, then go watch "The Spectacular Now," "Atonement" or "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet" (1996, Luhrmann) to see young adults falling in love and tragedy.

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