July 16, 2015

The Fault in Our Stars (2014)
Grade: 86/100

Director: Josh Boone
Stars: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Laura Dern

What it's about. Hazel (Shailene Woodley) is a teenage girl in remission from a cancer that has removed most of her lung functionality. She has cool, caring, and understanding parents, Frannie (Laura Dern) and Michael (Sam Trammell).

Hazel is engaging but friendless and bookish. Her mother obligates her to attend a cancer support group, where she meets Gus (Ansel Elgort), a gregarious and handsome teen who has lost a leg to cancer. The two are soon an item, although Hazel won't commit fully because she thinks she will die soon.

Hazel is obsessive about an obscure book by Van Houten (Willem Dafoe), a reclusive American author living in Holland. Because it is a movie, Gus finagles a visit to Amsterdam for the duo to see Van Houten. The trip is predictably romantic, even though Van Houten turns out to be a drunken jerk.

We expect that cancer will return for one of our couple, and it does, compelling the audience to sniffle ceaselessly through the final reel.

How others will see it. Despite the depressing story, the movie was box office hit, earning ten times its budget in the U.S. alone. This is reminiscent of Love Story, an even bigger commercial success (and much lesser artistic success) from two generations ago. It must be that many if not most women attend such movies with a support group, bring their hankies to such movies, and cry through the film as an experience, knowing that ultimately the characters are fictional, even if they are loosely based on other unfortunate teens known by the author of the book, Josh Green, during time spent at a children's hospital.

At imdb.com, the movie has a massive 200K user votes. User ratings range between 8.8, from women under 18, to 7.6, from men over 30. Given the youth of the characters and the weepy nature of the movie, it is to be expected that younger and female audiences would appreciate it the most, although all groups give it the benefit of most doubts.

Not too surprisingly, given the youth of the cast and its weepfest story, a backlash has developed against the movie. imdb.com user reviews and message board posts note that real teenagers are shallow and ill-tempered, instead of noble and loving, and repeatedly bring up the film's most obvious flaw: tourists clapping at the make-out session of Hazel and Gus in the same room where Nazi victim representative Anne Frank was effectively imprisoned prior to her arrest and eventual death at a concentration camp.

How I felt about it. The Fault in Our Stars is certainly an outstanding film, and the next step is to ascertain why. Typically, it is the director, in this case Josh Boone, who gets the credit. But, in this case, it is most likely the writers, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who are responsible. Their partnership got off to a dubious star with The Pink Panther 2, but their other released films , (500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now, have amassed piles of award festival nominations.

Unsurprisingly, is it the young actors in The Fault in Our Stars who received the most festival attention. Woodley and Elgort are well cast and make a handsome couple, and they are fine actors, but they benefit from a superior script and quality direction.

The main criticism of the movie is that the teenaged leads appear more mature than they should be for their age. This is epitomized by Hazel repeatedly reading the same "heavy" book over and over again, instead of "Twilight" serials or other nauseating teen fare. But Hazel and Gus do act like teenagers on occasion: Hazel berates Gus when she incorrectly concludes he is a smoker; Gus launches a tirade on Van Houten once it becomes obvious that he is an antisocial drunk instead of the generous genius they were expecting. Hazel later screams at Van Houten. Also, Gus encourages Isaac to break his athletic trophies, and egg his ex-girlfriend's parent's car. Gus also has a pathetic scene at a gas station.

As for the "overly" profound or pretentious quotes from Hazel and Gus, they are suffering from cancer likely to soon kill them, during the purported prime of their lives. In such a situation, you can either feel sorry for yourself, or reach out to someone else in the same boat, and the latter course feels better.

True, we wonder why a knockout like Lidewij is living with an aging druk and jerk like Van Houten. But he may have qualities less obvious to our teenaged leads, such as an estate to bequeath when his liver finally gives out.