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Entries in Fault in Our Stars/The [2014] (1)

Friday
Jun062014

The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

Fake a Wish

The success of The Fault in Our Stars, as a movie, doesn't hinge on the audience having read or not read the young-adult novel from which it's adapted. Hell, it doesn't even hinge on the audience having known or not known someone with cancer. The key here is one's knowledge of movies, and their ability to see through all the marketing, hype, and other attendant bullshit to catch earnestness sneaking out the back door.

I don't know John Green, nor did I read his wildly successful book. But I don't recognize anything in this white, whitewashed, and utterly inauthentic weepy from my years of living with one parent who made it through cancer twice, and one who came up short on the first go-round. In fact, if you surgically remove all the cancer elements from this stilted teen drama, there would be absolutely no conflict to challenge the characters. The Fault in Our Stars could be about teen alcoholism, sex abuse, or a giant meteor that's about to wipe out Indiana. In any of these Choose Your Own Disaster scenarios, the characters are nothing more than doe-eyed models spouting rejected Joss Whedon dialogue about how the universe is a sucking black void of pointlessness--except for love, which is awesome.

Before you (perhaps rightfully) accuse me of being cold and old, I'd like to clarify a couple of things:

1. I'm a sucker for these kinds of movies. A perfectly scored closeup on watery eyes can send me into a cheek-wiping frenzy. I've never watched 1986's Transformers: The Movie without welling up,* and becoming a dad has made the waterworks come even more frequently (indeed, more randomly**).

2. I was really looking forward to The Fault in Our Stars. I've enjoyed Shailene Woodley's career so far--from the ABC Family drama, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, to last year's spectaular The Spectacular Now, and the surprisingly good Divergent from a couple months back. Divergent re-introduced me to Ansel Elgort, who did alright in the Carrie remake, but really shined in the more substantial role. He played Woodley's sister in that film, and pops up here as her smoldering love interest. After seeing this film's trailer, I was intrigued, and I was all in.

Unfortunately, the story get off on the wrong foot and just keeps stumbling. The Fault in Our Stars does that annoying movie thing where a sassy narrator lets the audience know that her film isn't like those other sappy, cliche tear-jerkers, referencing Say Anything (of course), and suggesting we're in for something different--something real. We then spend the next two hours in the Cancer Cliche Museum, yawning at fossilized tropes and begging for balance as our guides smile, giggle, and squee through what they claim to be a bummer of an existence.

Hazel (Woodley) is a brainiac and an outsider who ports around an oxygen tank as a cumbersome reminder of the tumors that almost destroyed her lungs. Her always-home, always-smiling, always-dressed-like-they're-fresh-off-a-Macy's-catalogue-shoot (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) convince her to go to a support group. This is, of course, run by a cheesy, young Christian (Mike Birbiglia) who plays the guitar and knits a giant Jesus carpet for everyone to sit on (he's the film's most obvious cartoon character, but by no means its only one). In true Julia Roberts fashion, Hazel clumsily bumps into the tall, hunky, leather-jacket-wearing Gus (Elgort) in a hallway, and begins the long process of falling in love (SPOILER: She doesn't like him at first, you guys. No, no, no! I swear!).

Gus is a survivor, too. He lost a leg to cancer and now wears a metal prosthetic. It's totally cool, though, 'cause he now sees life as an adventure. He has a laid-back demeanor and doesn't take anything too seriously. He even creates this really awesome metaphor where he keeps an unlit cigarette between his lips--'cause if you don't give power to the thing that kills you, it can't really kill you, maaaan!

The filmmakers, it seemed, figured that if they couldn't actually put the audience through chemotherapy, they'd find some way to make us vomit.

Anyway, Gus arranges for he, Hazel, and her folks to fly to Amsterdam, to meet Hazel's favorite author, played brilliantly by Willem Dafoe. The encounter goes horribly wrong, though--unless you hate this movie. Dafoe's alcoholic, embittered writer sizes up the two fresh-faced teens as the obnoxious, developmentally arrested saps they are, and kicks them out of his house. It would have been inappropriate of me to stand up and cheer, but I really, really wanted to.***

Dafoe's arrival also signals a turning point in the movie. Gone is the whimsy and optimism. It's time to get about the business of killing and debilitating kids. What's strange about director Josh Boone and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber's choices from here on out is how fiercely they turn Dafoe's character's criticisms into demonstrable facts--instead of working to contradict them.

The author accuses the lovebirds of being selfish and narcissistic in their affections. Case in point, Hazel and Gus make out in the attic of Anne Frank's house, earning a slow clap from the crowd of gathered tourists. Does the presence of an oxygen tank really make that kind of display acceptable?

Then there's the scene where Hazel, Gus, and their blind friend, Isaac (Nat Wolff), egg the car of Isaac's ex-girlfriend, Monica (Emily Peachey)--who broke up with him right before he lost his sight. The scene is played with righteous joy, and includes the Monica's mother (Emily Bach) slinking back into the house (and ostensibly not calling the cops on the cancer kids). In an earlier scene, Isaac told his friends that Monica had wrestled with the decision and felt really bad about it. We never get her side of the story, though, or learn that she felt anything but sympathy and remorse. But, no, she must be punished for being a teenage girl who, when faced with an issue most adults would struggle with, made what could be seen as an unfortunate decision.

There's no reason for adults to watch this movie. It's fine for kids and teens who still think that life is like the bad TV dramas they stream on their phones. But those of us who go into movies about real issues expect to see real people navigating real and relatable conflicts. Fans of films that absolutely get the heartache and fuzzy morality of the teenage experience should check out The Spectacular Now and The Perks of Being a Wallflower; they're challenging, emotionally satisfying, and recognizable as not having been generated by marketing algorithms. The Fault in Our Stars, on the other hand, is for space cadets only.

*Laugh if you must; Optimus Prime's lone charge into Autobot city to take on a legion of Decepticons is one of the coolest, most inspiring John Wayne moments ever animated.

**Screw you, Sarah McLachlan, and your little dogs, too.

***The author's sour state may have been a product of the book, but there's something so genuinely salty about Dafoe's performance that I wondered if someone had called in a favor while he was shooting Nymphomaniac: Volume 2. He wears a constant expression of "What the hell is this shit?" rage and disappointment that perfectly mirrored my own.