Review: The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

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Director: Josh Boone
Screenwriters: Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
Based on the novel of the same name by John Green
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Woolf, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Willem Dafoe & Emily Peachey
Runtime: 125 min // Certificate: 12a

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ItBvH5J6ss]

The Fault in Our Stars, Josh Boone’s (Stuck in Love) hotly anticipated adapation of John Green’s popular novel about a cancer-stricken teenage girl who falls in love, opens with a promise. Hazel Grace (Woodley; The Spectacular Now), the central character, informs us of her situation; she is going to die, sooner rather than later, and nobody can change that, but then again aren’t we all just on the long and winding road to inevitable oblivion. She then proceeds to reassure us that she will not idealise or sugar-coat the realities of her situation but that she will confront the harsh fate that she has drawn with honesty and realism. This, we are led to believe, is what will set The Fault in Our Stars apart from other films of its ilk. What a shame then, that what follows is an exercise in wish-fulfilment and mawkish romanticism that is so meticulously assembled, with every sinew of its construction designed with but one intention – to make you tear up on cue – that you can’t help but laugh when one of the characters later declares that “the World is not a wish-granting factory”.

That Boone’s film is trite, dishonest and lazy is no real surprise. Green’s novel, though adequately written, feels as though its sole purpose is to make its target audience cry. In this respect, one has to give at least some credit to Boone; the fact that I practically had to swim my way out of the cinema is testament to his ability to tap into the same maudlin sentimentalism as Green. The core audience – teenagers, romantics and idealists – appeared to lap it all up with real vigour and appreciation, their tears streaming down their faces before the film had even begun. Nonetheless, that Boone utilises every trick in the book to prompt these tears, including slo-mo shots of doctors panicking, a melancholy musical score and mechanical conversations about love and death, suggests that the characters and the story are nowhere near developed enough to make the more cynical contingent of the audience care all that much.

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That, in a nutshell, is the film’s fatal flaw. Of course I was sympathetic to Hazel’s plight. After all, hers is a tale about teenagers who are about to be struck down before their prime by terminal cancer and you’d have to be pretty fucking cold-hearted not to sympathise with them on some basic level. The problem, alas, is that I never actually cared. I felt no connection to these people, because none of them are reminiscent of any person I’ve ever met. They’re all (with one notable exception, who I’ll discuss in a moment) idealised to the point of caricature, while the journey they go on is so broadly written that even those who haven’t read Green’s novel will be able to predict how it’ll all play out. In order to make the audience care, you have to make the characters believable. As harsh as it sounds, cancer isn’t enough; there needs to be a hook, a flaw or, as Hazel might say, a “hamartia” (because Hazel isn’t just attractive and generous, she’s also intelligent and well-read too… see the problem yet?) to which the audience can relate. That none of them – not Hazel, Gus (Elgort; Divergent), Isaac (Woolf; Stuck in Love) nor Hazel’s parents (Dern; Inland Empire / Tramwell; True Blood) – have a callous bone in their body makes it all too difficult to actually view them as real people.

It’s a real shame too because the performances are either solid or, in the cases of Elgort and Woodley, absolutely extraordinary. Everyone gives it their all and I cannot fault any of them (though Dern is criminally underused, as always), but the material holds them back from greatness. Only Dafoe’s (The Grand Budapest Hotel) character, the bitter, alcoholic author who Hazel and Gus go to visit in Amsterdam, struck me as remotely human, though that might be because I saw him as a kindred spirit. I mean he’s still problematic in the sense that he’s almost too far the other way (where everyone else is idealised he’s just a monster, albeit one who undergoes at least some redemption) but he at least offers a refreshing, though altogether too brief, change from the impossible to hate – though at the same time impossible to “like” – characters in whose company we spend the vast majority of our time.

On top of all of this, there’s something a little unpalatable about the fact that all of these characters are white, American, middle-class, attractive and well-educated. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not for a moment suggesting that these types of people don’t suffer from the devastating effects of cancer just as much as everyone else does, but do you honestly believe that Green’s book or – if the initial reaction is anything to go by – Boone’s film would be anywhere near as popular if this weren’t the case. If Hazel was a mess, if Gus couldn’t afford a prosthetic leg and had to go around in a wheelchair or if their families were poor and living in a shack in Mississippi – in essence, if they weren’t living a near-perfect American life that just so happened to have been shattered by cancer, rather than, for example, crime or poverty – do you think anyone would give anywhere as much of a fuck about them? I know it sounds like I’m criticising the film for what it isn’t, rather than what it is, but I think it’s a point worth making because it relates back to the aforementioned idealism. These aren’t real characters rather they’re characters that the target audience want to be. That’s fine but for me it results in an unbridgeable void between the characters and the illness at the heart of the story.

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“Au contraire”, I hear you shout, “this isn’t a film about cancer, it’s a film about love”. Well… yes, but also definitely no. It’s a film that uses cancer to make us sympathise with characters that we normally wouldn’t be able to relate to at all. Remove the cancer and have the characters threatened by a car crash or a sudden heart attack and what little sympathy one can muster up – which for me was based purely on the illness – fades altogether and suddenly you have nothing but a generic romance in the mould of (500) Days of Summer or The Notebook, albeit one that is well acted. That the screenplay is so stodgy, with characters professing to do things because they are “metaphors” and speaking in grand, sweeping generalisations that are supposed to sound profound but actually just sound childish is clear evidence of this. It’s a generic RomCom, albeit with little “Com” (though in fairness, what little “Com” there is did make me laugh a couple of times), and very little else.

I think the fairest assessment I can give of The Fault in Our Stars is that it simply isn’t for me. I’m not a member of the target audience and neither John Green nor Josh Boone is interested in my view. That’s fine. I wouldn’t expect those who like this film to share my admiration for The Driller Killer. Sometimes, books and films just aren’t made for certain people. I certainly don’t hate The Fault in Our Stars in the way I hate, for example, The Perks of Being a Wallflower – a film / book with a similar target audience but one whose approach to depression and child abuse I found actively opprobrious. Alas, I just feel no connection with it whatsoever and I struggle to see how anyone over the age of about eighteen would. It’s a film that preaches individuality and realism but then delivers the exact opposite, and I couldn’t get past that. It’s not even that I didn’t like the characters but that I didn’t dislike them either; I was just wholly indifferent to them all, and in a film about teenagers who are dying of terminal cancer that’s a pretty insurmountable problem.

Let’s conclude with a positive though. The film is, barring a few minor but insignificant changes, pretty damn faithful to the book and so if you love the book then you’ll probably love the film too. That’s about as much of a recommendation as I can make. To everyone else, I simply say that if you think you won’t like it based on your tastes or the trailer or whatever else, then you’d do well to trust your judgment because I can’t see it appealing to anyone outside of the target demographic. Or maybe I’m just a sneering, stony-hearted bastard. Who knows? Either way, can we please have a film about Dafoe’s character’s scotch-fuelled exploits in Amsterdam, because he was great…

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