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And that’s why I don’t have a hamster.

Movie

The Fault in Our Stars
(2014)

 

Big C chic for teens, The Fault in Our Stars at least begins with admirable intentions. Perhaps setting out its store so forthrightly, that this is not your classic chocolate box movie romance where everything turns out alright in the end, was unwise. Inevitably the picture pitches headlong into another renowned variant on the genre, the doomed love story, where it becomes difficult to distinguish from its bedfellows.

If John Hughes had tackled terminal illness, it would probably have ended up resembling this adaption of John Green’s young adult novel. That is, the John Hughes who was just past his-teen nostalgia faze and trying his hand at more meaningful ruminations (see She’s Having a Baby). Obviously, I’m not the target audience for Josh Boone’s picture, and I have studiously avoided the annual arrival of a new Nicholas Sparks adaptation. I was curious about this one, though, mostly due to its part Shailene Woodley’s arrival as the next J-Law. She hasn’t yet ascended to such heights, but she’s probably the better actress (certainly, she made Divergence watchable, while Lawrence only really has to show up and Hunger Games works like clockwork around her). True to form, Woodley’s the best thing here.

I can’t speak to the book, but there’s an overwritten broadness to Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber’s screenplay that works in the overwrought world of, say, The Breakfast Club (where kids’ conflations of a harsh world of harsh parents and harsh teachers and bullying peers seem appropriate to their notion that they are centre of the universe), but here is frequently in danger of appearing too much like smug cleverness (which makes sense, given they also penned 500 Days One Summer). The movie so consciously pushes buttons, be it in set pieces, music montages (and Hazel has the cheek to call out the use of Peter Gabriel songs in the romantic slush of yesteryear!), shocking twists of fate, or simply smart-mouthed exchanges, that its notional attempt to serve the reality of terminal illness ends up wrapped in cotton wool. Or rather, in cinematographer Ben Richardson’s cosseting capturing of suffering.

Woodley is also splendidly aided by the various production departments. Every teen girl dreamer will be hoping that, should the writing be on the wall, they will look as adorable as she does. With a stylish cannula ever in place and the most desirable of this season’s haircuts, Hazel Grace is the thyroid cancer sufferer du jour. She is certainly a worthy usurper to Debra Winger’s unassailable throne.

If Hazel starts off being a little overtly witty and knowing, she’s thrown into sharp relief when Ansel Elgort’s Gus (Augustus) arrives at her support group. He’s lost a leg to bone cancer, or the special effects department, but otherwise looks as robustly healthy as only an ex school sports star can be. He’s also possessed with the kind of cocky dream guy confidence that only exists in the movies. When he turns up in a limo to whisk Hazel away to Amsterdam, it’s clearly a rather lame homage to John Cusack with his ghetto blaster.

And, of course, a formulaic romance needs a third wheel, the geeky guy (see Anthony Michael Hall and Jon Cryer in Hughes’ movies), Nat Wolff’s Isaac is on the verge of blindness and replete with “hilarious” anger management issues. Laura Dern (can she be that old now?) is immensely winning as the over-protective mum (True Blood’s Sam Trammell is less persuasive as dad). The soundtrack is precisely tailored, and exactly the kind of thing Hughes would pick were he still alive and making movies (M83, but of course).

The film can’t just be about one, or both, of them dying (and of course it’s not the one we expected, except that as this is fiction for girls, it is really), there has to be a goal in mind. So Hazel dreams of meeting the author who wrote her favourite cancer lit, An Imperial Affliction. Which means travelling to Amsterdam.

Even the great Willem Dafoe cannot salvage the avalanche of clichés that is scribe Peter van Houten. Perhaps Green intends van Houten to be a toxic version of himself, but that’s no excuse (there are parallels to the inspiration for the novel, and they share extremely self-important titles). He’s an abrasive, reclusive drunk. Isn’t that how all authors are? The one saving grace of the character, I thought (or hoped), was that we were going to be left without an explanation of why he was so negative and twisted. It would have given the movie a smidgeon of credibility in not spoon-feeding its audience. Instead, van Houten only goes and rocks up at the end – at Gus’s funeral no less – full of explanations. The character is only as unsubtle as the movie generally, but this displays particularly overt cynicism.

And the movie in general is much more involving before the Amsterdam jaunt. It’s in Amsterdam that the forced dramatics take over. There’s a bizarre and wholly inappropriate scene where the Hazel and Gus kiss for the first time – in Anne Frank’s house. Even the weird endorsement of applauding onlookers can’t banish the conviction that this really wasn’t the time or the place for such shenanigans.

Later, there are the “cute” capsule scenes. Such as egging Isaacs’ ex’s auto, which we’re supposed to get behind but actually shows that cancer victims can be arseholes too. And the pre-demise eulogies, so the ill-fated can listen to what’s in store for them. The latter particularly preys on teen wish fulfilment, and credit to John Green as he has clearly tapped a vein of teen angst to winning effect. But an actual attitude, rather than a skin deep one, might have been more fitting. The early scenes at the support group suggested the picture might have a caustic Fight Club-lite attitude to the manufactured apparatus that surrounds sufferers of terminal illnesses. Instead, it indulges Romeo and Juliet star-crossed fantasies. That’s fair play, of course. This is a teen romance, and it would be self-defeating to turn off the readership with gruesome details and unfettered despair. But it also means The Fault in Our Stars is nothing special, aside from Woodley’s tremendous performance.

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