By: Garrett Collins
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, and Willem Dafoe
With its ability to completely annihilate lives and families, the big C is not something to be incomprehensibly laughed at. At the same time, movies that deal with the subject and have a narrowly written sad tempo to them can be extremely tough to watch. So a question that many filmmakers have been struggling to tackle is just where is the balance? How can a movie deal with such a heartbreaking subject matter, while at the same time hide the heart on their sleeves by laughing at it? 2011’s Joseph Gordon Levitt starrer 50/50 came the closest to getting it just right. But when the book Fault In Our Stars became a bestselling novel in 2012, you just knew Hollywood was going to take another shot at it. And take a shot they did, putting Hollywood teen elite actress Woodley in the film’s lead. With a full-blown star and a bestselling book in their back pocket, how could they lose? The answer is slowly, as it turns out even with the not so secret weapon of Woodley is the best part of the muddling film which bears its books name. However, even the most powerful weapons can only take their bearers so far.
The film follows the book almost to a T, as it tells the story of Hazel, a 16-year-old diagnosed with thyroid cancer three years ago. With her lungs severely weakened, she is forced to take along an oxygen tank along with her wherever she goes. Her parents grow so overly concerned with her constant inability to live a regular teen life, her mom (an excellent Dern) forces her into cancer support meetings. There Hazel meets Augustine Waters (Elgot), whose cancer caused half his leg to be cut off but is in remission now. He is there to support his friend Isaac (Wolff), who is in serious danger of losing both his eyes. Together, Gus and Hazel embark on an adventure that finds them finding hope in the most unlikely of places.
The film tries so hard to be a modern-day Romeo and Juliet crossed with cancer that somewhere along the way it loses itself. Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber (500 Days of Summer, The Spectacular Now) in translating the material to screen loses the emotion-grabbing that the novel was able to do with ease.
Part of the problem might be with the film’s direction. Director Josh Boone (Stuck in Love) directs the film with a sleekness and hipness that’s sure to catch fire with teen audiences, yet damns those who don’t like being told what to feel. For example, when Gus tells Hazel that it would be a privilege to have his heart-broken by her, it should have the power to rip the hearts right from our chests. Yet, I don’t know whether it is the way the scene is blocked or staged; it just had no impact on me. And this is someone who fought back tears in the final moments of 50/50. There was also a big problem that should have been addressed in the casting stages. I understand that Elgort was Woodley’s brother in Divergent and they have a great rapport. But while Woodley’s lines flew out of her mouth with ease, Elgort always looks like an uncomfortable actor doing an uncomfortable role, and the way his wannabe movie star sheen melts as he kisses the much more obviously talented Woodley during their first kiss was awkward to say the least.
There is plenty that is right with these Stars, however. Three of them in particular. The aforementioned Woodley is once again on top of her game, as she is one of the rare actresses who can play both strong and weak equally well. She once again displays a knack for being able to make the audience know what she is thinking without saying a word (an ability I praised to high heaven during my The Spectacular Now review), and much like Divergent, the film remains constantly watchable as long as she is on the screen. Her most honest scenes are shared with Dern, who is very believable and heart tugging as Hazel’s suitably concerned mother. Dafoe is fittingly (and drunkenly) creepy in his role of author Van Houton. Special mention also has to be given to comedian Mike Birbiglia, whose character of cancer meeting runner Patrick has some authentically memorable scenes.
While The Fault In Our Stars tried its best to make as much light as it could of the subject matter hanging over both characters’ heads, once it comes full circle Boone found it fit to bludgeon the audience with enough filtered in emotion to fit James Cameron’s script for Titanic. I’ll admit to an instance of having to fight back tears, but it came from a director whose see-saw direction and inability to manufacture the emotion needed made the moment less fervid than it should have been. In other words, I had something in my eye.