Thursday, June 26, 2014


Year: 2014
Director: Josh Boone
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff
Run Time: 2 hours 6 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Let me attempt to deflect some of the immediate criticism by positing that no, I in fact have not read the massively successful John Green novel upon which The Fault in Our Stars is based. Many would say that this fact might invalidate any negative opinions I have about the film to which I respond: bully. It's a movie. It should tell a story in its own right without the crutch of a couple hundred pages of YA Lit propping it up. 

This is a film with a built-in audience. Those who were fans of the book are almost invariably going to love the movie because it brings to life the things that have been floating around in their heads for years. This kind of wish fulfillment allows them to draw all sorts of entertainment value out of merely watching the characters they have spent so much time with come to life. There is nothing wrong with this. There's nothing wrong with enjoying a movie. That's what it's there for. But if you're a fan you're good to go, so why not skip this review?

Because things are about to get real ugly.

OK, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit. At the very least, The Fault in Our Stars is an unerringly competent movie. It's never so bad as to stop being a decent diversion, but it hardly ever seeks to be more than that. The director exists only to bring the plot from point A to point B, not getting in the way of things with stuff like "style" or "flair." Perhaps the greatest indicator of this films lack of commitment to visual creativity is the default generic color scheme it adopts, all Teal and Orange and no Joy.

She provides the orange.

Although every beat of the plot feels well-worn and familiar, why don't we go through the motions anyway and synopsize a bit? Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is a young woman suffering from cancer. She spends her days unfulfilled and waiting for death until she meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) in a support group. Their full names are wildly important. I know this because they see fit to repeat them to each other at every opportunity like they get a nickel every time they sneak a surname into the dialogue.

Anyway, Augustus Waters changes Hazel Grace Lancaster's life and perspective with his gung ho worldview and optimistic confidence. She resists at first, but is inevitably drawn into his charm, thus beginning an epic and brief love affair in which they get as much as they can from the world before it takes them away for good. Although the details are different, this is a dyed-in-the-wool teen romance with only a singular plot point that can't be detected from miles away.

And there's a certain comfort in this. There's a reason people keep coming back to these types of movies. But the filmmakers use it as an excuse to truncate certain emotional developments with the assumption that genre fans will already be able to intuit what's going on. This is a big flaw. Sure I can understand  at an intellectual level why Hazel Grace Lancaster is yelling in one scene, but I'd rather have it build naturally from the storyline and characters instead of ramping from Zero to Bad Girls Club in the blink of an eye.

Don't be misled by the smiles. They'll be screaming at each other in a few seconds.

One of the most intriguing (and the most damaging) elements of the film is that Augustus Waters must be one of the first ever examples of a Manic Pixie Dream Guy. For those of you unfamiliar with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl cliché, check out this TV Tropes article. Augustus Waters only exists to provide an emotional turning point for Hazel. He is cheery, relentless, and... kind of a dick.

Perhaps I'm the only person in the world to see things this way but I'm OK with that. And let's be clear I am speaking from an utterly personal level, but at every turn in the first half of the film, Augustus Waters seems to be nothing other than condescending ("It's a metaphor"), pushy, and overwritten. The movie in general can't escape the overwhelmingly booky feeling that suffocates the dialogue, but he shoulders the worst of the burden. The only thing I have to ask is: Is this what people want?

His overly wordy diatribes and his dogged persistence in pursuing Hazel Grace Lancaster (whom he insists on calling Hazel Grace instead of Hazel in a move which I assume is supposed to seem puckish but comes out rather douchey) does nothing for me and in fact actively hurts the later moments in which he has softened and I am supposed to care about his feelings.

At least as written in this film, he is a colossally empty character filled with just enough generic "guy" traits to seem like an active personality. 

Also, who even wears leather anymore? #grumpybrennan

Elgort does what he can with the character and manages to slightly bring him around by the finale, but Woodley delivers by far the superior performance here. She's perhaps a little too sweet to deliver all the hard edges concealed within her dialogue, and both of them are far too hale and hearty to realistically portray disease-stricken teens, but she handles the copious lifted-directly-from-the-book narration with a grace and ease that it certainly doesn't deserve.

Now, let me make this clear. I am not saying the book is poorly written. In fact most of the symbolism and structure contained in these passages is quite lovely. But falling back on direct book quotation is the absolute laziest form of literary adaptation. I'm sure many of you have heard of the filmmaking aphorism "Show, don't tell." The Fault in Our Stars is all about telling us what it means rather than depicting it onscreen in any meaningful way. Frankly, it's too much fault and not enough stars.

And I'm used to my screencaps having way more blood and knives than these. All I'm finding is just PEOPLE. How boring.

One last thing before we go. Movies have been struggling to find a way of assimilating modern technology into their structure. This film uses the method also at use in Neighbors of superimposing emails and texts directly onto the screen. While it's absolutely important to incorporate the prevalence of screens into any depiction of modern society, we're not quite there yet. These texts are intrusive artifice that serve only to bring one out of the movie.

Also, it's really just not as emotional to watch someone text their boyfriend good news rather than say it in person. Or even over the phone. But hey, at least they're trying something new. We'll get there eventually.

All in all, The Fault in Our Stars is an adequate teen movie. It doesn't quite earn the tears it wrings simply by being about what it's about, but it is a fleet-footed and mildly entertaining film despite its lack of aspiration to transcend its genre limitations. Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters aren't the most interesting teens and their love story isn't the most resplendent in all the vale, but at the very least it does good on its promise to deliver soapy tragic romance.

TL;DR: The Fault in Our Stars is a middling romance but it's hard to hate.
Rating: 6/10
Should I Spend Money On This? I'd say pass on this one. If you really do desperately want to make yourself cry, steal a friend's HBO Go password and watch A Normal Heart instead.
Word Count: 1295


  1. Ah, it makes more sense now--I thought you'd reviewed Non-Stop, but you didn't.

    Non-Stop did (what I assume) is kind of the same thing in regards to texting. The very first time I saw the New Texting in movies was back in Kick-Ass 2, though. (I've been told that the ur-example might be some flick called LOL, that neither of us will ever watch.)

    Anyway, I do largely agree with you, adding only that directors need to keep text conversations really short. K-A 2 did a pretty good job of it. It dragged in Non-Stop a bit. And that was a movie with inherent tension--I'm not sure I want to even imagine paying $10 for the chance to see people have a text conversation about their likely-lame feelings.

    There's probably someone, possibly Brian De Palma, who could do a twelve-minute long-take of an actor, possibly Nicolas Cage, texting his butt off, and it'd be great... but we have certainly not seen it yet.

    Between you and Brayton, I'm kind of convinced this movie would just drain the life right out of me, but then again I loved Sincere Heart, which is half of the same scenario. But then again, that was directed by the guy who eventually made Harakiri, whereas this was directed by the guy that I can't imagine is likely to direct any notable samurai movies at all.

    1. "Then again" again, anyway. Ugh, I hate it when I do that.

    2. Interesting to hear about the texting in Non-Stop! That's honestly somewhere I never would have expected that trope to crop up. And I definitely saw Kick-Ass 2 but have little to no recollection of it.
      And I assume you're talking about LOL, the Demi Moore/Miley Cyrus movie that taunts me with its inane poster every time I log on to Netflix. And you're right, it is highly unlikely that will end up on the pages of this blog. If it does, I suggest you call the police immediately because something has gone very wrong.
      I'd love to know what you think of The Fault in Our Stars, but there's no way I would encourage you to go see it in good conscience, so I'm going to keep that under wraps for the time being.

    3. I'll see it eventually. Gotta get to 100 or more for 2014 somehow.

      (Also there's a non-negligible chance I will cry and cry and cry, although such is lessened by the prospect of more Ansel Elgort.)