Cancer Weepie Utterly Benign

The Fault in Our Stars
(USA, 126 min.)
Dir. Josh Boone, Writ. Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Laura Dern, Nat Wolff, Sam Trammell, Willem Dafoe.
Critics and audiences everywhere proclaim The Fault in Our Stars a bona fide tearjerker. It’s the Love Story for a generation, says solid word of mouth as friends, writers, and everyone under the starry sky give stories of masses of teens flocking to the box office for this YA cancer weepie based on the bestselling novel by John Green. Having a good cry seems like a refreshing departure from a stream of catatonic dystopian pics cluttering the adolescent movie market, though, so good on The Fault in Our Stars for getting young audiences in tune with their emotions.

This buzz prompts one to approach The Fault in Our Stars with expectations of epic catharsis. I expected crying; I expected weeping; I expected runny-nosed blubbering. Yet I felt absolutely nothing while watching this film.

The Fault in Our Stars betrays every effort of the mechanics that drive emotional manipulation. Each click and tug on the heartstrings, cynical as that sounds, is evident in each turn in the tragic—and tragically self-conscious—romance of star-crossed lovers/Cancer Kids Hazel (Divergent’s Shailene Woodley) and Augustus (Ansel Elgort, one of Divergent’s bit players). There seems little point in having a good weepie, though, if it demonstrates every effort to elicit an emotional reaction, but prompts nothing but detached coldness. The Fault in Our Stars simply fails to conjure any genuine emotion.

Perhaps the fault in Our Stars is the unbearable precociousness of the adaptation by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the extremely talented writers behind (500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now (the latter is a significantly stronger teen-set romance with Miss Woodley). The Fault in Our Stars probably reads much better than it plays, so the twee quirkiness of the script feels false and forced. Hazel and Gus abound in misguided literary references and overly self-aware character tics. Hazel, for one, obsesses over the finale of her favourite novel, which leads the couple on a “Make a Wish Foundation”-type adventure as Gus whisks Hazel to Amsterdam using his special wish to ask the curmudgeonly author (Willem Dafoe) some basic plot points. Hazel’s total misunderstanding of the open-endedness of the book, which sees its protagonist die midsentence in the book’s final line, is an unsubtle metaphor for Hazel’s concern for how her parents (Sam Trammell and a terrific Laura Dern) will survive her.

The muddled literary motif is one of the major tells in the jejune literary ambitions of The Fault in Our Stars since the film handles Hazel’s fixation on the book rather clumsily. The teens can’t see beyond plot and character, and The Fault in Our Stars struggles equally in fleshing out its skeleton. The trip to Amsterdam makes Hazel’s query of life after death especially icky with a trip to the Anne Frank Museum that gives Hazel a firsthand parallel to her tragic heroine (i.e.: herself) in the real life example of someone who endured long after her death was etched in prose. Likening Hazel to the world’s most famous Holocaust survivor seems a bit tasteless, especially since the trip to the Anne Frank Museum ends in a boisterous make out session that prompts applause from the hordes of tourists watching the kids’ PDA in Anne Frank’s attic. Ew.

If Hazel’s character tics and story arcs are annoying, they are nothing in comparison to the smorgasbord of fey quirks that characterize Gus. He is easily the most annoying movie character of the year. His becomes immediately tiresome when Hazel introduces herself with her full name—Hazel Grace Lancaster—and then insists that she likes to be called Hazel. Gus henceforth calls her Hazel Grace for the rest of the film, just, you know, because it seems like the dashing thing to do. Gus, a total poser, walks around with unlit cigarettes in his mouth to defy cancer. “It’s a metaphor,” he tells anyone and everyone so that they can see how defiant, how heroic, and how smart he is. Tuh, cigarettes aren’t the only things that cause cancer, Gus!

The character tics are matched by the calibre of performances with Woodley easily outshining her co-star. Woodley handles the complexity of her character extremely well. Hazel marks Woodley’s most outwardly emotional performance to date—even more than her strikingly poignant performance in The Descendants—and The Fault in Our Stars gives an impressive one-two punch with Woodley’s resilient turn in Divergent earlier this year. Elgort, on the other hand, feels wholly inorganic in this performance. Gus comes off as a calculated leading man, conscious of every eyebrow cock and titled smile to coax the audience into sobbing buckets of tears. Ditto the awkwardly forced performance by Nat Wolff as Gus’s partner in crime Isaac, who tries way too hard to charm the ladies. More than any fault in the film is the palpable whiff of unnatural acting. Shed a tear not for poor Gus and Hazel—sorry, Hazel Grace—but for obvious, artificial melodrama.

The Fault in Our Stars only finds genuine heartache in the ever-dependable quivering jaw of Laura Dern, who suffers silently as she watches Hazel enjoy her one fleeting chance at romance. It’s far more moving to watch a mother cherish each last moment she shares with her dying daughter, especially when Hazel becomes more standoffish and aggressive to her parents so that she may spend her dying days with Gus. The quaintness of the young lovers’ romance kills everything around them, though, so though, so the effect is muted. Dern’s performance injects a genuine sense of loss into The Fault in Our Stars and belongs in a much better film.

Director Josh Boone (Stuck in Love aka Writers) never really finds a natural groove for the material. The Fault in Our Stars is wildly uneven with its annoying onscreen texts and social media blurbs—look to Chef for far better onscreen integration of the digital realm—and its use of self-conscious wannabe-literate voiceover to manipulate viewers’ emotions. The film tries too hard to be cute while it simultaneously pushes every button to trigger sentimentality. A fake funeral finale showcases a commendable monologue from one performer, but the scene has an overall preciousness that reeks of some tragic Harold and Maude wannabe-type celebration of love and death. It's just so annoying that one cannot wait for Hazel and Gus to die. One’s restlessness with Fault’s blatant attempt to reap catharsis ultimately metastasizes into something fatal, which seems incredibly ironic since this cancer weepie is so utterly benign.

Rating: ★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

The Fault in Our Stars is now in wide release.

What did you think of The Fault in Our Stars?