It might be impossible to overstate John Green’s standing in the world of Young Adult fiction, where his books dominate bestseller lists, which is why the film adaptation of his most successful novel, The Fault in Our Stars, topping the weekend box office is no surprise. There is some good coming from Green’s writing. It’s so much more intelligent and thoughtful than the Twilights and Divergentt. I don’t want to condescend to his audience. Having watched The Fault in Our Stars, which appears to be a pretty straightforward adaptation of its source material, I can’t seem to imagine myself doing so, since, at its base, the plot isn’t too far removed from a Nicholas Sparks melodrama.
Even so, if the basic conceit of The Fault in Our Stars is to tug at the heart strings, then it’s a triumph, since the audience I saw it with was full of openly sobbing women (a surprisingly bizarre moviegoing experience for me, slumped down in my seat in the dark, surrounded by weeping strangers). But the movie wants to be just a bit more than emotional tragedy porn, instead acting as a film about coming to terms with death – and more, importantly, life – following Hazel (Shailene Woodley), a teenager who’s slowly dying from cancer and who quickly and unexpectedly falls deeply in love with Gus (Ansel Elgort, Divergent), a cancer survivor. I can’t quite fault the film for this premise — it certainly feels noble and thoughtful — but there are major problems in both the plotting and the direction that doom the movie for anyone who isn’t already a fan of Green and his books.
First off, Our main characters carry little chemistry. Part of this is due to Gus’ character, the textbook Manic Pixie Dream Girl (beefcake edition), who bursts into Hazel’s drab existence with all the whimsicality he can muster. He’s flippant and irreverent and does things like carry unlit cigarettes between his lips as a “metaphor.” But as goofy as Gus’ character can be, mNY of the problems fall on Woodley, an actress I’ve never warmed to, and, despite this being the best I’ve seen her, one who just cannot evoke any sympathy from me. Not helping things is their Dawson’s Creek-inspired, needlessly erudite speech and vaguely esoteric references to things like Magritte or Shakespeare, which feel forced. More mature YA material, like The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2013) and It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010), have been adapted in the past, but their grown-up qualities feel like honest depictions of how teenagers actually act, which is partly why they’re more cinematically successful (plus, they both had David Bowie songs). At the same time, neither made near the cash Fault will end up with, since this is a fully mainstream effort, one where teenage “edginess” is milquetoast and uncomplicated, adding up to little more than some cuss words and hinted-at sex.
This in and of itself might not be the film’s death knell, but then there’s the plotting, which is wildly inefficient. A good chunk of the movie is spent dealing with Hazel and Gus’ obsession with a reclusive writer (Willem Dafoe) who wanders in and out of the film, and who, despite massive build-up, serves no real thematic purpose besides sending the pair to Amsterdam to track him down (a pity, since Dafoe’s easily the best thing going). And this only serves to set up a set piece where the two head to the Anne Frank house, allowing what appears to be a chance to wax philosophic about perseverance and hope. But this quickly dissolves into one of the most bizarre scenes I’ve ever been witness to, as Hazel and Gus proceed to make out in the Anne Frank attic, while various onlookers give them a round of applause. It’s incredibly strange and exceedingly wrongheaded and the most glaring misstep in a film that’s full of them. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some sexuality and brief strong language.
Playing at United Artists Beaucatcher.