fault

The Fault in Our Stars tells the audience right off the bat that it’s not going to be like all those other movies about people with cancer. No, says protagonist/narrator Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), this is the truth. “Sorry,” she says, establishing a faux-hip take-it-or-leave-it tone. But the only thing that distinguishes The Fault in Our Stars from common weepers is the intimidating amount of pretension slathered onto it.

Hazel Grace Lancaster (the middle name is always included) is a teen who must daily face her mortality, what with the tumors in her lungs. She can’t appreciate her parentally-mandated youth support group, seeing it as false cheer used to distract from the inevitable. But then the hunky Augustus “Gus” Waters (Ansel Elgort, who somehow has an even less probable name than his character) shows up. Hazel wants to jump on Gus from the moment she sees him, but is reluctant to get close to anyone, since she’s afraid of hurting them with her impending death. But Gus is persistent, and soon they are on a cancer-driven journey towards lovey-dovey land.

The title of the film comes from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” The rejiggering of the quote reflects how the movie approaches its leads. There’s nothing wrong with them – they’ve just been dealt a bad hand by life. Hazel and Gus are idealized sensitive teenagers to the nth degree. Both of them are ridiculously mature, witty, and learned. Gus is some kind of demigod, the first cancer hunk that I can think of in American cinema. If there’s anything imperfect about him, it’s cute, such as his fear of flying. He’s also unbearably pretentious, most apparent in his habit of holding an unlit cigarette in his mouth because “it’s a metaphor.” Hazel is less idealized and more just bland, because she’s meant as a figure upon whom the target audience can easily imprint themselves. The best thing I can say about the movie is that Woodley is able to make her have some semblance of being a living, feeling human being, something more than what she’s written as.

Actually, most of the best I can say for the movie comes from some of the performances, especially Laura Dern as Hazel’s mother and, to a lesser extent, Sam Trammell as her father. Perhaps they come off better because they aren’t given long, flowery monologues to recite, but the two feel harrowingly real as people facing the worst scenario any parent can imagine. In their faces and gestures are a more subtle story than what the rest of the film is working with.

The Fault in Our Stars misfires again and again. The actors have to keep grappling with horrible dialogue, fake-intelligent quips that they sometimes seem embarrassed to have to recite. Elgort especially doesn’t seem to believe the ridiculous stuff that spills out of his mouth. It culminates in a jaw-droppingly bad scene in which Hazel and Gus visit the Anne Frank House. Somehow, hearing passages of Frank’s diary moves the two to amorous ecstasy. Genocide is such a turn-on. In the attic in which the Frank family hid from men seeking to round them up for death, the pair kiss. And then their fellow visitors, rather than upbraiding them for their astonishing show of disrespect, applaud. It’s likely to be one of the worst sequences of the year.

This movie is laser-focused on one goal: to make the viewer cry. And it certainly worked over my audience – I heard sniffling and sobbing as early as halfway through. But it stacks its deck so much as to overwhelm. It’s so deathly concerned with sincerity that it warps all the way back around to cynical string-pulling. There is nothing wrong with engineering a movie to evoke sadness. Hell, all movies are engineered to make the audience feel or think something. But The Fault in Our Stars isn’t really trying to make the viewer feel. It is, in Buzzfeed parlance, trying to “give them feels.” And there is a distinction there, believe it or not. A feeling is something honest, something considered. A “feel” is something ephemeral and cheap.

The ideas this movie has about death and dying are a revelation only to those who have never contemplated much on the subject before, which is why the book on which it is based could only ever have been successful as a work of YA lit. There’s nothing original about Hazel or Gus’s bold proclamations about mortality, not even within the genre. The fact that they both have cancer is almost incidental to such ideas. It’s a cloak to lend their platitudes legitimacy. But if this had been a regular love story, no one would likely have paid attention to it. Slap on cancer, and BAM! Feels gold.

My favorite part of The Fault in Our Stars may be Willem Dafoe as a reclusive author whose one book both Hazel and Gus love. In fact, it is this admiration that drives a good chunk of the plot, as they travel to Amsterdam to meet him and seek answers about the book’s characters. But Dafoe, in a goofily cartoonish performance, turns out to be a drunken jerk. This film fetishizes youth, and in Dafoe we see all the supposed ugliness of growing old and cynical. But he’s entertainingly offbeat in a story filled with wish-fulfillment figures. And the fact that a cancer story has been made as a vehicle for wish fulfillment is the weirdest thing to me. Maybe that’s why I could never jibe with the film. It could not inject a feel into me. Sorry.