June 6, 2014

SHOWBUZZDAILY Film Review: “The Fault In Our Stars”


THE FAULT IN OUR STARS:  Worth A Ticket – John Green’s Beloved Book Is Well Treated By the Screen

It’s almost impossible to describe the plot of John Green’s YA novel THE FAULT IN OUR STARS without making it sounding precious and shamelessly sentimental.  Erich Segal’s Love Story, the giant hit and instant self-parody soap of 1970, famously began “What can you say about a 25-year old girl who died?”, and Green’s book ups the ante, featuring a romance between two teenagers who have both been stricken with cancer.  What redeems the story is Green’s commitment to mundane details and emotional honesty, and his fearless sense of gallows humor, expressed through his narrator, Hazel Grace Lancaster, whose thyroid cancer has spread to her lungs, and the love of her life, Augustus Waters, who’s lost a leg to bone cancer.  The two of them, along with their friend Isaac (eye cancer), keep the book buoyant, even as it–inevitably–becomes increasingly grim.

Hazel (Shailene Woodley on screen) meets both Gus (Ansel Elgort, who recently played Woodley’s brother in Divergent) and isaac (Nat Wolff) in a cancer support session that she has zero interest in attending.  She and Gus share a cynical disregard for the hushed cliches with which others respond to their disease, and they spark to each other instantly, but she’s wary of any deep involvement.  She’s been so ill that she calls herself a grenade, apt to explode all over the emotions of anyone who cares for her.  It’s bad enough that her parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) have had their lives taken over by her grave condition; she doesn’t want anyone else’s happiness on her conscience.  Nevertheless, she and Gus become inseparable, particularly when he joins in her obsession with a (fictional) novel about a teenager with cancer written by Peter van Houten (Willem Dafoe), an American expatriate who now lives reclusively in Amsterdam.  Their trip to visit him and probe into the mysteries of his book forms the centerpiece of both the novel and the movie.

The film, adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (they wrote the scripts for (500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now) and directed by Josh Boone, treats the material with great respect, but a certain amount of Green’s voice is unavoidably lost.  The 2-hour movie doesn’t have room for all of Hazel’s narration, and without her tart, wrenching spin, the events feel more conventionally soapy than they do in the reading, especially during the last section.  Boone, whose only other film was the blink-and-you-missed it, rather thin rom-com-dram Stuck In Love, tends to aim straight for the middle, and there’s no particular cinematic personality on display that might have enriched the drama or the comedy, rather than merely depicting them.

Boone, however, accomplishes the most important task of this assignment:  he stays out of the way.  He allows the movie to speak through its script (and thus through Green’s novel), and most importantly, he hands the reins of The Fault In Our Stars over to Shailene Woodley, who plays Hazel with heartbreaking strength, humor and immediacy.  It’s awfully hard not to compare Woodley’s career trajectory to Jennifer Lawrence’s, now that she has her Divergent franchise and serious movie career both in gear, but Woodley’s style is different from Lawrence’s quicksilver charisma; she’s a more straightforward, even old-fashioned kind of star.  Hazel is also that kind of nakedly honest part, and the match of actress and role is ideal.  Elgort is utterly charming as Gus, but he’s hampered a bit by the fact that although film is a more “objective” medium than a first-person narrated book, the movie’s Gus is still basically Hazel’s loving picture of him (very much including his tragic dimension); there’s an alternate universe version of this story in which Gus wouldn’t be quite so idealized and have more of an independent existence as a character.  Most of the novel’s secondary characters are minimized if not omitted from the screenplay, but Laura Dern is superb as Hazel’s mother, and Willem Dafoe has the firepower for the one scene that rips Hazel and Gus out of their own view of themselves.

As a movie, The Fault In Our Stars is more well-tended than adventurous.  Even when the action moves to Amsterdam, the photography by Ben Richardson is just travelogue pretty (and Richardson was behind the extraordinary photography of Beasts of the Southern Wild, so it’s not for lack of a striking eye), while the soundtrack is a mix of a standard score by Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott, and the usual run of downloadable songs.  But just about all the scenes that readers will be desperate to see on the big screen are here, and the script has been judicious in paring down the narrative to its most essential elements.

In a summer that’s so far featured one gigantic CG extravaganza after another, interspersed only with broad studio comedies, it’s easy to root for The Fault In Our Stars, a smart, literate, heartfelt story about recognizable human beings.  Ironically enough, this story haunted by death has more genuine life in it than nearly anything else around.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."