Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars (2014) directed by Josh Boone

The Fault in Our Stars opens with a big promise: this isn't going to be one of those syrupy, schmaltzy Hollywood films about cancer.  No, this film is, according to our protagonist and narrator, “truth”: a story to be told without resort to cliche and sentiment.   

What a load of a bullshit! 

The Fault in Our Stars is, in reality, 'yer standard terminal illness tearjerker, with diseases that leave our principals looking California-photogenic 'til the end, tons of soft focus smooching in Autumnal parks and great big dollops of heartfelt, acoustic guitar indie music. It's a straight-up weepie, but it's a decently put together weepie, and successful to the extent that it actually wrung a tear or two from my cynical bones.

Our cancer-crossed lovers are Hazel (Shailene Woodley) and Gus (Ansel Elgort).  Hazel is smart, literate and funny, Gus is adventurous, brave and imaginative.  They even have a lot in common other than the fact that they're dying. After a meet-cute at a support group they quickly become entangled in each other's lives and we watch as their feelings and attachments to each other develop into real love.  It's pretty standard teenage romance stuff, though with the morbid twist that the primary bond is their impending deaths.  As the months tick away their respective conditions worsen, the film exploring the limits of romance when your body is consuming itself.

Like a hunkier Michael Cera
Unsurprisingly, a story of two cancer suffering teenagers finding love just as they're about to die is pretty damn depressing.  The script leavens this with black (well, beige anyway) humour, but there's never any ignoring the essential tragedy of the situation.  Woodley and Elgort are both decent enough in the lead roles; and successfully navigating the tightrope between cute and annoying (though they sure do wobble). They're ably supported by two heavyweights in the supporting cast; a bearded and grumpy Willem Dafoe and a sensitive Laura Dern as Hazel's mother.  This isn't a film defined by great performances (particularly a miscast Sam Trammel as Hazel's father), but Dern in particular brings her A-game, giving a masterclass in how to imbue a stock role with development and character.

The cancer movie has practically become its own subgenre of late.  My favourite is 2011's excellent 50/50, which possesses a sharp as hell script and a willingness to get its hands dirty with the nitty gritty of what chemotherapy and terminal illness do to a person.  The nadir is the execrable Now Is Good with Dakota Fanning, a piece of irredeemable crap so gloopily saccharine that I rooted for the leukaemia.  The Fault in Our Stars falls somewhere in the middle, textually up front about the realities of cancer, yet afraid to cinematically go the distance.

My suspicions are that this stems from adaptation difficulties.  In John Green's novel of the saem name, it's easy to identify with these character's personalities without having to grapple with the visual toll of disease.  It'ss up to the reader to visualise the characters a process allowing them a certain degree of self-censorship.  The problem Boone faces is that it's difficult from both a production and aesthetic viewpoint to get genuinely ill-looking actors; firstly because his hot, in-demand teen stars don't want to slim themselves down to a skeleton or shave their heads, and secondly because genuinely dealing with the disease runs the risk of overpowering a sweet love story with body horror.

There is also a pretty disturbing subplot about this guy in the shades getting his eyeballs surgically removed.
The solution is simply to handwave it, the result being that throughout the two lovers are photogenic, healthy looking, beautiful people.  In The Fault in Our Stars, the real way we know a character is going downhill is when they begin wearing what I dub 'The Woollen Hat of Death' – cinematic shorthand that an ill character is about to be brown bread.  Tactics like these (which I think stem from 1970s Love Story) come close to undermining the entire production; especially as they went to such lengths to explain that this isn't going to be like those other wimpy cancer films.

What saves the film is Josh Boone's exemplary grasp of how to manipulate the audience. The book it's based on is young adult lit, and I suspect the target audience of teenage girls is going to absolutely adore this.  Boone goes for their tear ducts like a man possessed, deploying every cinematic trick in his arsenal to squeeze every last drop of emotion out of the material. His prime weapons are an uncanny instinct for when best to deploy a pop song (specifically the recurring use of M83's Wait), an occasionally moving and poetic snatches of dialogue and some nice (if somewhat blunt) visual metaphors.  By the final scenes I could hear hankies being blubbed into and sniffles all around the theatre. Even I, a seasoned film critic, ended up with a little something in the corner of my eye.

Regardless of its many flaws, The Fault in Our Stars has to be judged a rough success simply on that front.  It's an unashamedly sentimental, manipulatively cheesy bit of cinema, but like a crap comedy that nonetheless makes you laugh, it must be doing something right.  It's certainly a vast improvement on Josh Boone's last film Stuck in Love, on the whole I'm glad that my wish that he'd be run over by a bus never came to pass.


The Fault in Our Stars is on general release from 19 June

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