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Review: "The Fault In Our Stars"

This review originally appeared in Nathaniel's column at Towleroad

Shailene Woodley is everywhere. Which... well, I hope you like looking at her face. Not content to be the face of the post-Hunger Games YA dystopia fever (Divergent), she's also continuing that other everygirl thread in her career. She reads more like a girl next door, someone you know, than a STAR!; pretty but not intimidatingly gorgeous, relatable not charismatically mysterious.  She's specalized in earnest portrayals of ordinary teens getting their first taste of the tough stuff in life: death and desertion (The Descendants), disease and disappointment (The Spectacular Now). Hazel Grace Lancaster, her character in The Fault in Our Stars, doubles down and has to deal with all of it. 

Hazel is a 16 year old with thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs. She needs an oxygen tank to breathe, which she drags behind her like a depressing carry-on she wishes she could check. Though she's outlived the initial prognosis she's acutely aware that she'll never grow old. Inbetween flashes of well earned self-pity and sarcasm, she worries about her parents (the well cast Sam Trammell and Laura Dern, who is reliably excellent) and how they'll survive her death. She attends a cancer support group for teenagers, at her mother's prodding. Mrs Lancaster hopes it will lift Hazel's depression and help her make friends.

Enter the Dreamboat Boyfriend... 

The support group has your usual movie mix of comic relief characters (the ringleader is a born again buffoon), and tear-jerking extras who have to sell their pain quickly for ambience, before getting out of the way - “Step aside. Plot coming through!”. We quickly focus on two guys Hazel's age: Isaac (Nat Wolff) who is going blind and his best friend Gus (Ansel Elgort) who lost his leg to the disease but is now cancer free. Gus always has a cigarette dangling from his lips which he never lights, his metaphor for acknowledging death’s presence but refusing to give it power or some such teenage profundity. (I lost my notes.)

Though Fault is not a romantic comedy, and the occasional laughs are of the gallows variety, Gus is basically the gender inverted version of the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl: adorable, impossible to believe as an actual human as opposed to a "character", but deliciously ALIVE and therefore able to jolt our unhappy protagonist awake for adventure… #YOLO.  Gus comes on strong. Very very strong, really, considering Ansel's charm offensive. He's so cocky, self-consciously "cool" and quick to make the moves on Hazel that a tossed-off confession later in the movie that he's a virgin rings suspicious when it's not meant to. I would say the actor is completely overdoing it but this overplaying does have a few benefits in the last act when things get dark. It wasn't until the movie ended that I realized he'd played Shailene's reserved brother in Divergent so he's got range at least. (When we return to that franchise with Insurgent next year will it suddenly be burdened with incestuous vibes?) 

Once Gus & Hazel are making eyes and texts at each other and trading favorite novels, the plot gets very complicated and even Transatlantic, eventually taking us to Amsterdam and the Anne Frank house. Hazel’s breathing problems make this tourist stop a Herculean effort (no elevators) and at the top of the stairs in that famous room where Anne Frank hid from the Nazis, the teenage lovers make out and (gasp) are applauded for it by the other tourists in what has to be the single biggest eye-rolling movie moment of the year.

But all the while the threat of sudden death from cancer looms, which is a bummer. But also: the point.

Hazel warns us in voiceover that we have a choice about how to tell sad stories and she’s notgoing to sugar-coat this one. To some extent she keeps that promise (two funeral related sequences late in the movie and a very frank conversation with her parents are beautifully judged) but the film has enough of the romanticism and broad only-in-a-movie moments (like the Anne Frank house) to hedge its bets. It thinks it's too cool to be maudlin but it's also a little bit maudlin.

Judging the quality of a cancer movie on whether or not it makes you cry and how much is silly.

Four hankies!"
- The Blurb Whore Times

It's a bit like asking if baby kittens are cute and if so which one is cutest? You will have a good cry, the movie delivers there, and sometimes that’s a good reason to go to the movies. If you've lost anyone to cancer when you were both young (full disclosure: I did), fair warning: you will have to towel off from the sheer deluge. But no amount of feels should excuse impromptu makeouts in the Anne Frank house. 

Grade: C+
Oscar Chances: Too YA for them. [On second thought looking at box office numbers... perhaps Shailene can get some heat for her performance, given the career ascendance and the popular hit factor. Golden Globe nomination?]

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Reader Comments (23)

I just don't like Shailene as a public figure, but oh well... I guess I need to get used to her.

As for John Green, his writing is typical of YA today -- the "kids" are always written as these strange people who you imagine the writers wish they were or wish kids were actually like.

June 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBia

I thought it was mediocre. The only award this movie might win is best euology since there's like 17 to choose from. Laura Dern was very moving but the young leads did not rise above the atrocious material and trite dialogue.

June 7, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermurtada

I wouldn't be too surprised to see Shailene Woodley get some heat for her performance, considering it is looking like a big hit (and in conjunction with her career heat). When a well-received drama hits big and gets approving reviews, Oscar often notices in some capacity. So I wouldn't write it off completely. Other than that, Ed Sheeran's song during the credits could show up at the Globes, but pretty much no hope for the Academy.

June 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

i prefer dying young.

June 8, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermcv

One good thing bout reading your reviews. Not much spoilers. How good is Shailene?

June 8, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjeff

So true, now I quite dislike Woodley as a "celebrity", but I love her as an actress, that crying underwater in The Descendants still lingers to my mind
I really want to see this movie due to the hype and I haven't had a good cry in a long time
But how I hate it when the major characters are having a romantic moment and then people are clapping (in ANNE FRANK'S HOUSE no less)
and methapor in a teenage movie is like toddlers trying to do algebra, they don't even understand the real meaning of it and we don't even want to see it

June 8, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercraver

Have you seen Love Story?

June 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I think this review doesn't give as any acting info on Woodley's performance.

June 8, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermark

Joe: I just looked at the Rotten Tomatoes score, and I'm a bit surprised at the 82%. You'd think more than 18 critics out of 100 would be angry enough at the Anne Frank House scene to give a mixed to negative review to the overall package.

June 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Shailene Woodley always sounds dumb. A dumb one who tries to sound smart.

June 8, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergocampo

'I think this review doesn't give as any acting info on Woodley's performance.'

I second this - it's over half the reason I read a review for something like this. I'm probably never going to see he movie but am interested in the acting/actressing.

June 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnonny

Having read the novel, Shailene Woodley was really the only choice to play Hazel, and boy does she deliver. The Anne Frank House scene is ripped straight from the novel, but doesn't play quite as cringe-worthy there. Some of the changes made from the novel are... questionable, to say the least, as they deny the movie a lot of the complexity of the book (if possible the way a certain letter is learned about and found in the book is even MORE gut-wrenching than in the film), but I can't deny the movie works. I cried. My friends cried. The stupid freaking teenagers sitting in front of and behind us cried (and talked LOUDLY and OFTEN - doesn't anyone teach their kids manners anymore?!?) from Amsterdam onward. I would say it's more of a solid B as the acting really lifts it. The direction is too glossy and it's overly scored (GOD I wish the entire team behind the Spectacular Now could have gotten a crack at this material), but that sorta comes with the territory.

June 8, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

lol at the scene in anne frank's house.

I almost want to see this movie in theaters just for the audience reaction.

June 8, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermarcelo

Did Laura Dern do well in the movie?

June 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBhuray

I think I was more let down that we were THIS CLOSE to a Wild at Heart reunion.

June 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSanty C.

Surprised the Anne Frank House bit hasn't gotten more flack, but the updated version of the Diary included Anne writing about getting hot and heavy with Peter for a minute, so maybe they're keeping in the spirit of that? Okay, I tried, for Hazel and Gus it still sounds pretty cringey-tacky. I guess the generation reading TFIOS is too young to remember the "Who makes out at Schindler's List?" bit from Seinfeld.

June 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterClaire

A third of the audience at my theater applauded the Anne Frank House makeout scene as well.

June 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJonn

Romance as a genre has never been my thing despite being in the ideal age group for it. Only period pieces are somewhat interesting to me with the social limitations (and at least they look pretty) so I am not planning to see this one. But I should see something with Shailene soon, I somehow managed to skip The Descendants and The Spectacular now. I am rethinking of I should see Divergent.

And honestly I do not wish to complain but I hope as a born again Christian that the "buffoon" comment was just how the movie handled the character (it would not be surprising) and not your personal opinion.

June 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterChinoiserie

The book is excellent, and so is the movie. Shailene Woodley was Oscarworthy here! Cried and cried like I didn't think I would. Ansel Elgort is going to be a star too. See this film immediately!!!

June 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

All of the Anne Frank scenes are exactly from the novel. So it wasn't "misjudged" for the film.

June 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRK

The performance by Ansel Elgort / the character of Augustus Waters is the major flaw of this film. I haven't read the book, but Augustus Waters is more douchey than charming. How in the world did a girl like Hazel Grace fall for him? It's so unbelievable. Elgort is alright and is great in a few scenes, but generally fails to sell the love story. The contriteness in the film mostly stems from Augustus. He's a character with many surprises and layers, but they just aren't believable. If Gus was played by someone else, perhaps he could've been complex, interesting and believable.

If it weren't for Shailene Woodley / Hazel, I would've really disliked this film. Woodley is great in it.

June 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnthony Mai

Shailene Woodley is such an annoying person. The new Paltrow.

June 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterChris

@Chris: I couldn't agree more!.....Woodley is annoying as hell. I'm also of the belief/camp that Woodley is overrated as hell. So, she can cry in a weepy YA story...well, so can a lot of talented actresses. I wonder if she can do ANYTHING else. For now...nope, not impressed with Woodley at all. I have a sinking feeling that a campaign for Best Actress is being launched as I write this...good lord, no. JUST NO. GOOP 2.0....granola GOOP.

June 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSile

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