The Fault in Our Stars

Posted by Joel Copling on June 5, 2014

There isn't a drop of subtlety within "The Fault in Our Stars," and one supposes that that is how it should be. There also isn't a sequence in which a character isn't tackling some sort of enormous obstacle with sarcasm or some similar gastrointestinal fortitude to get over it. Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber's adaptation of the acclaimed book by John Green has a bevy of strengths--among them, a trio of actors who immediately empathize with this material, a soundtrack of total gems that complement scenes rather than dictate their intended emotion, and a cutting truthfulness about self-worth that is enough to move even the cynical. But for all its strengths, the greatest weakness is a flippant attitude about the most crucial element of the story: death.

Hazel Lancaster (Shailene Woodley, gorgeous to behold with an immutable glow) was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at age 13, and then, upon the removal of a portion of it, the cancer spread to her lungs. It's now terminal. She's taken a pragmatic, almost cynical view of the situation. Her parents (Sam Trammell and an incredibly moving Laura Dern) convince themselves (and no one else) that they're not sentimental people, but here is Hazel, in narration, finding light in the situation because, well, depression isn't a side effect of cancer--it's a side effect of dying. The five stages of death come to mind, and rather than depressed, Hazel seems permanently and terminally in denial.

Augustus "Gus" Waters (a charismatic Ansel Elgort, who oddly played sibling to Woodley's character in the recent "Divergent") lost his right leg to "a touch of osteosarcoma" only a short time ago. He and Hazel meet at a cancer support group led by Patrick (Mike Birbiglia)--whose "ball cancer" led him to Christianity--which Gus is only attending for the benefit of best friend Isaac (Nat Wolff)--who is losing his eyesight to surgery for his retinoblastoma but has a smokin' hot girlfriend (Emily Peachey), so it's ok. Hazel (or "Hazel Grace," as she introduces herself to be and he calls her for the duration) and Gus strike up a romance entirely based around each person's understanding of the other's strife. They introduce each other to meaningful metaphors (He: just put the unlit cigarette in your mouth to spite it; she: "An Imperial Affliction," a cancer-themed novel that she loves, ends mid-sentence because that's life, you know). The five stages of dying should once again come to mind, and if they do and the viewer catches on quickly enough, that should ease a certain development in the film's third act.

The heart of "The Fault in Our Stars" lies in the connection that these two souls share, so that leaves some excessive material (in a film that is over two hours long, mind) to distract, though only occasionally and not destructively, from it. Isaac has his own dreams and regrets, but his character is largely the comic relief and maybe-not-so-broad stereotype. When Hazel and Gus visit Amsterdam to track down the author of "An Imperial Affliction" (Willem Dafoe), the central scene is an awkward one, made all the more awkward by Dafoe's performance. And then there's the resistance to deal with death as an actuality until both of the characters must (A pair of eulogies is particularly affecting, though). But no matter: This is a romance that comes at the right and crucial time for these two, and in that, "The Fault in Our Stars" finds its soul.

Film Information

Shailene Woodley (Hazel), Ansel Elgort (Gus), Laura Dern (Frannie), Nat Wolff (Isaac), Sam Trammell (Michael), Willem Dafoe (Van Houten), Lotte Verbeek (Lidewij), Ana Dela Cruz (Dr. Maria), Randy Kovitz (Dr. Simmons), Emily Peachey (Monica), Mike Birbiglia (Patrick).

Directed by Josh Boone and written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, based on the book by John Green.

Rated PG-13 (thematic elements, sexuality, brief language).

125 minutes.

Released on June 6, 2014.