Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Jun 29, 2014 8:56 am 
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A "fairly unsentimental" teenage cancer romance

Yes, that is what one enthusiastic reviewer said about this adaptation of John Green's young adult bestseller: fairly unsentimental. This is to admit that it is sentimental, but avoid saying how much. The answer is very much. But unlike its famous 1970 bestseller-into-movie predecessor on this theme, Love Story, it's more leavened, if less than the novel, with irony and snark. These are not so much John Green's angles but qualities he picked up from today's young generation, researching his book.

A boy and girl fall in love after meeting in a cancer support group. He's had bone cancer and has a prosthetic leg, but might live. She's in remission, but goes everywhere with an oxygen tank, and her chances of survival are virtually nil. "I'm a grenade," Hazel (Shailene Woodley) tells Gus (Ansel Elgort). She acknowledges that she's going to die and it's going to devastate everybody around her. And make the audience cry. It's preordained. The fault of The Fault in Our Stars is in its setup. Young couple, one is soon to die. It's operatic material. Only, of course, it could be dealt with in a dry and realistic manner. That is not truly the case here. In this Liebestod, love in death is viewed through a haze of sweet romance and good taste. It's sentimental, heavily so, but never saccharine or corny. For what it is, it is very well done.

Gus tells the support group what he fears most is "oblivion," not pain or death but not living an important life. He carries cigarettes but never lights them. "You put the thing that has the power to kill you between your teeth," he says, "but you never give it the power to kill you." It's a "metaphor," he says. He meets the world with panache and a show of good cheer. Has ever a fresher-faced, more angelic young adult male popped an unlit cigarette in his mouth and smiled?

"There is only one thing in this world shittier than biting it from cancer when you're sixteen, and that's having a kid who bites it from cancer," says Hazel in her voice-over. That's the grenade part. Hazel's mother Frannie (Laura Dern) pours on the good cheer, pep-talking Hazel to the support group. "Make some friends!" she says.

Nothing could be shittier, but the nice music (including Jake Bugg's "Simple As This" early on) and the voice-over and the nice-looking people are ways that the experience is controlled and mitigated for us. "The sharp edges of the story are sentimentally sanded down," which Peter Bradshaw wrote of the director Josh Boone's first film, applies here. And that is a weakness Fault cannot escape, which is evident from the first scenes between Gus and Hazel. Gus is a charmer who speaks every line with a smile that makes Hazel, or "Hazel Grace" as he charmingly calls her, smile sweetly back. If Gus were not so tall and smooth and chipmunk-cheeked he might seem like a jerk, he's so overconfident. But that's his wooing manner, which he uses on Grace, and Elgort uses on the audience. He's a polished young actor, whose style is ideally suited to rom-com. As Gus's young pal being blinded by cancer, Isaac, Nat Wolff is another promising actor (strong in Gia Coppola's recent Palo Alto), who has more of an edge; unfortunately his character gets trimmed in the screen version. Woodley, who showed complexity in her breakout performance in Alexander Payne's The Descendants, is capable of much more, but settles comfortably into this relatively simple, if heavy, role, and gives it her all.

Writers Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter, who did the adaptation of Green's novel, wrote the scripts for (500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now, and the dialogue has a similar ring. Gus's buoyancy echoes the overconfidence of Sutter, the young alcoholic played by Miles Teller (and his girlfriend, similarly swept away, was played by Shailene Woodley too). Seeing these films together, one gets a sense of young men as charming deceivers, whose deceptions work well for a while, while they're young -- or while they're alive.

It's tricky to edit down a story as simple as Green's, as must be done for this film, or so it seems. Notably, Gus had a former girlfriend, Caroline Mathers, who died of brain cancer, and whose unseen shadow complicates his love for "Hazel Grace," and he needed that complexity. Even more of that comes in the book from the story he tells of his days of glory as a basketball player, gone forever now, and the time leading up to losing part of his leg; likewise details of his large family, clipped out by Weber and Neustadter in the interests of speed and clarity. There is more about Gus's cancer in the book, and more of his vulnerability, foreshadowing its return.

Hazel introduces Gus to a book she loves about cancer, An Imperial Affliction, by Peter Van Houten. He likes it, but can't stand the open ending. Van Houten is a recluse, living in Amsterdam, but Gus wangles an invitation to visit the writer. And, despite their illnesses, they are able to go. Van Houten (Willem Dafoe), who turns out to be alcoholic, depressed, and mean, sends them away with no answer. The trip was romantic, but the visit is a breath of reality and ugliness. Later, there are surprises. You never know who will die, or when. Van Houten is a surprise too.

Amsterdam punctuates the film, separating the long meet-cute from the long dying, the serious onslaught, the end, the eulogies -- and the loud weeping, which, at a well-attended screening, will be heard echoing through the cinema. That is what The Fault in Our Stars is about: a good look at youth, and illness, and love, and death -- and a good cry. It provides all that, and if all that is what you want, you should watch it.

The Fault in Our Stars, 126 mins., debuted at Seattle 16 May 2014, and opened theatrically in the US 2 June. It comes to many other countries this summer including the UK 19 June and France 20 August.


I recommend Tom Shone's entertaining and spot-on review in The Guardian. "'The Fault in Our Stars': 'The swoony, drop-dead hit of the summer' – first-look review: Adaptation of John Green's YA bestseller is as mushy as they come, but you'll feel good about weeping into your popcorn." 4/5 stars. I'd not rate it that high, but I'm not as cruel either, so it balances out.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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