*** This review contains spoilers. ***
As The Fault in Our Stars opens, lead character Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) more or less promises that her story will avoid all the usual cliches found in tales of people dying from terminal diseases. Yes, Hazel is one of those people: at age 16, she has thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs, forcing her to walk around with a breathing tube and oxygen tank. She stays home a lot, reading her favorite cancer-related book, An Imperial Affliction, over and over, avoiding social situations and sinking into depression. Then her caring but not cloying mother (Laura Dern) sends her to a support group in a church basement, and her life changes forever.
The Fault in Our Stars is based on the best-selling 2012 novel by John Green and has a rabid army of fans already in its corner, sight unseen. I have not read Green’s book, so I can’t say how closely the movie follows its plot or tone; but I can say that the movie comes across as such an idealized, romanticized portrayal of young love against insurmountable odds that I never once felt truly emotionally involved in the plight of Hazel and Gus (Ansel Elgort), the 18-year-old cancer survivor (he’s lost his right leg) she meets at that religious-themed support group and eventually falls in love with.
The pair hit it off over their sardonic dismissal of the substance-free homilies offered at the support group, although Hazel wants to avoid any sort of attachment at first since she’s only got a limited amount of time left on the planet. But Gus is relentless, although I’m not sure what Hazel sees in him because he’s pushy to the point of being obnoxious and is given some of the most awkwardly pseudo-smart dialogue I’ve heard since Words and Pictures, the movie I saw last month that also featured some overly intellectualized teens. Gus is surprisingly erudite for a kid who only reads books adapted from video games, but that’s just part of the problem with the rather unrealistic way these characters are portrayed throughout the entire film.
Aside from her apparatus and occasional struggle to catch her breath, Hazel looks as healthy and lovely as any well-cared-for teenager, while another character who undergoes extensive cancer treatments toward the end of the film never so much as loses a single strand of hair. I don’t know what Hazel’s parents (her father is played by True Blood’s Sam Trammell) do for a living, but neither one ever seems to go to work. Although they apparently can’t afford to take a vacation, they live in a gorgeous house on a nice block and there’s never once a mention of their health insurance. I presume that the movie is set after the launch of Obamacare since Hazel never has to worry about being kicked off her plan despite using a highly experimental medication.
The aforementioned vacation is the centerpiece of this long, long movie. Gus arranges through the Genies — a fictional version of the Make-A-Wish Foundation — for Hazel, her mother and him to travel to Amsterdam and track down Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe), the reclusive author of An Imperial Affliction. Hazel has questions about the book’s ending and has tried fruitlessly to get in touch with the writer via letters. Gus gets in touch through email — something Hazel apparently never thought of — and elicits a response almost immediately, providing the impetus for the trip.
But Van Houten is not what they expect, and Dafoe’s drunken, dissolute cynic is one of the more hoary devices in a movie that begins to stack them higher and higher the further it goes along. Distraught over their visit, Hazel and Gus console themselves with a visit to the Anne Frank House — where Hazel climbs all four flights despite every shred of better judgment she might possess. When she gets to the top, she pants heavily for just a few minutes before making out with Gus. That elicits a round of applause from everyone else in the room, which is what usually happens when teens start getting all hot and heavy in the middle of a Holocaust memorial, right? Somehow after all that, Hazel still finds the strength to hurry back to their hotel and climb into bed with Gus so that the two can tastefully lose their virginity together.
Of course, none of this can last forever and there is an earth-shattering revelation before they head home, although when they get back they still find the time to help their friend Isaac (Nat Wolff), who has been blinded by his cancer, get his revenge on the girlfriend that dumped him by egging her car and house. Apparently you get a pass for vandalism when you’ve got cancer, if I’m reading one of the movie’s most offensive scenes correctly. Then it’s time for more heartbreak, a funeral, a eulogy, an unexpected arrival, another eulogy and a wrap-up that’s supposed to leave us with some sort of feeling of hope and optimism but left me relieved it was over at last.
Coming off fantastic turns in The Spectacular Now and The Descendants (and doing what she could in Divergent), the incredibly talented Woodley works hard at grounding the story with her earthy, open-hearted performance; her presence and luminosity helps make long stretches of the film bearable and even occasionally engaging, such several honest passages with her parents. But Elgort can’t successfully navigate Gus’ brashness and heavily stylized dialogue, while the rest of the cast are just there as types and never fleshed out as real people. There are a few scenes of genuine poignancy, like one where Hazel is sitting and staring wistfully at her backyard playset. For once director Josh Boone doesn’t hit us over the head with, say, a flashback to little Hazel rocking happily on a swing; it’s just enough to show us the now-empty, forlorn-looking set.
Boone, whose one previous credit was 2012’s Stuck in Love, shoots the movie well enough, bringing a visual vibrancy to even what are supposed to be the darkest, most heartbreaking moments. But while those moments may have worked to devastating effect on the page (from what I understand), they’re fairly flat on screen; if the film didn’t have the cache of being based on a book that so many people love, it would really be nothing more than a glossy, upscale version of one of those “disease of the week” TV movies, with wittier teens than usual. Despite every attempt possible to elicit raw emotional power out of its quirky, doomed romance, very little of The Fault in Our Stars ever feels as real as its protagonists would no doubt want.