Saturday, June 7, 2014

"The Fault in Our Stars"

 4 / 5 

The Fault in Our Stars is the kind of movie John Hughes might have made if he had been put in charge of Terms of Endearment or Love Story, a movie about beautiful people dying beautifully with a healthy chunk of teen-aged angst thrown in for good measure.

It opens with a line of narration not found in the best-selling novel, as 16-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) explains that life isn't like the movies, where nothing is ever so bad that apology and a Peter Gabriel song won't fix it.  Then, for the next two hours, the movie is filled with apologies and songs that aren't by Peter Gabriel but could very well be.

If the movie is aware of this enormous irony, it makes no acknowledgment of that, and this must be said: Movies that lead to tearful apologies backed by Peter Gabriel songs are actually pretty effective.  The Fault in Our Stars is no exception.

Apart from that line, this is less an adaptation of John Green's phenomenally successful novel than it is a filmization of that book, and although I came through the novel with dry eyes, I admit the same can't be said for the movie, and it's either a credit to the author or the filmmakers, or both, that the movie mostly reflected exactly what I envisioned in my head while reading the source material.

Somehow, though, the movie rises above the novel, which seemed to me to be trying too hard to wring tears out of the reader.  The movie is more effortless, thanks primarily to the terrific central performances by Woodley and by Ansel Elgort as Augustus Waters.  If you don't know Augustus's fate, I won't reveal it here, but let's just say one of these two kids isn't going to make it to the final reel.

Both of them are dying of cancer, though the movie's version of cancer is a sweet and lovely one, in which the primary side effects are having to wear a sleek prosthetic device or a discreet cannula hooked to a wonderfully portable oxygen tank.  Neither Hazel Grace nor Augustus looks at all sick, and I suppose that if either one of them had, the movie would have lost more in physical appeal than it gained in realism.

Augustus is the impossibly beautiful boy who falls in love with a relatively plain-looking girl after they meet during a support group for teen-aged cancer patients.  When I say he is impossibly beautiful, I mean it: At a Saturday matinee screening, the audience comprised almost exclusively of teenaged girls swooned and screamed when he appeared on screen, and much later collectively hyperventilated during a scene in which he removes his shirt.  It makes sense that Woodley, though a capable actress and ostensibly the main character, is comparatively plain because she is the kind of girl the primary audience for The Fault in Our Stars can imagine being.

The movie makes being terminally ill look attractive, no doubt, and if it seems like I'm opposed to the way The Fault in Our Stars tells its story, I'm actually not.  The movie is made first and foremost for people who have never once seen Love Story or Terms of Endearment or Beaches or Brian's Song, to whom real death is something they are not accustomed to seeing on screen.

Given that, The Fault in Our Stars tells its story with admirable straightforwardness and restraint.  The plot leads Augustus and Hazel Grace to Amsterdam, and there's a scene in a restaurant that's more romantic and filled with more dignity and respect for its two main characters than anything else I've seen on screen this year.  The Fault in Our Stars might not be the most original movie ever made, but it is certainly one of the most sincere.  Later, Augustus and Hazel Grace visit the Anne Frank House, and the effective use of the famous diarist's own words draws tears honestly and appropriately.

As it was in the book, a long digression into a subplot involving Hazel Grace and Augustus meeting their favorite author and discovering that he is an embittered old sham (in other words, a grown-up) is less effective and doesn't seem completely thought through.  It connects to the plot, but only in a circuitous way that probably could have been handled differently.  But as with most filmizations of best-sellers these days, the filmmakers weren't about to make a substantial change, and it does allow the movie the luxury of some beautiful moments in a beautiful European city with beautiful doomed lovers.

Even in those Amsterdam scenes, The Fault in Our Stars is a movie with little visual flair, that takes no chances by diverging from its source material. In ways similar to the teen movies of the 1980s, it also doesn't quite know what to do with its adult characters -- though there is a fine, emotionally raw scene between Woodley and Laura Dern, who plays her mother and finally, for those few important moments, drops the faux happiness that worked so well in the TV series Enlightened but otherwise feels forced and uncomfortable here.

The movie isn't about the adults -- it's about the kids, who are learning some lessons that are all too rarely seen on film these days, lessons about integrity, dedication, relationships and the harsh realities of life.  In that regard, it's an almost shockingly old-fashioned view of the world by today's standards, but one whose very squareness makes it feel new and fresh.

The movie ends exactly the way its opening scene implies it won't: With a smile and a swelling pop song on the soundtrack.  But you know what?  Who cares?  There's a promise implicit in that movie convention -- life will get messy and unhappy and difficult, but ultimately there will always be something to smile about.  The Fault in Our Stars is sometimes messy, unhappy and difficult, but in the end, it is a movie very much worth smiling about.

Viewed June 7, 2014 -- Pacific Theaters Glendale 18


No comments:

Post a Comment