Friday, June 6, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars: Close to faultless

The Fault in Our Stars (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and perhaps too harshly, for thematic elements, chaste sexuality and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang

Every generation embraces at least one swooningly poignant saga of star-crossed lovers, which, as a result of massive ticket sales, becomes a media sensation that generates all sorts of commentary, analysis and — the inevitable backlash — scornful snickering.

During one of her rare bouts of utter despair, Hazel (Shailene Woodley) admits that she
has come to regard her childhood back yard playset as quite pathetic, a sentiment with
which Gus (Ansel Elgort) heartily agrees.
The adulation isn’t hard to understand; we’re hard-wired for this sort of stuff. Have been since 16th century audiences crowded the stalls to see performances of Romeo and Juliet. And probably long before that.

As for the snickering, well, sometimes it’s warranted. (See the 1970 adaptation of Erich Segal’s Love Story. Or the book itself, for that matter.)

A very fine line separates artistic success from the sort of puerile, overly histrionic treacle found in TV soap operas. We therefore ask that our melancholy melodramas be intelligent, populated by perceptive characters whose actions resonate with our real-world experiences and expectations, and which — in the case of films — are made by talented actors who respect the material, scripters with an understanding of subtlety, and directors who refrain from artificially enhancing the emotional intensity. With stuff like too many tight close-ups.

I’m therefore happy to report that director Josh Boone’s adaptation of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars conducts itself quite honorably. The book’s many, many fans will be delighted to hear key chunks of dialogue and exposition lifted directly from the page, and in a few cases scripters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have improved the story’s overall flow: some judicious nips and tucks here, a couple of droll laugh lines inserted there. (Films are much better than books, when it comes to verbal zingers.)

Mostly, though, this film gets its momentum and emotional heft from star Shailene Woodley’s expressive and heartbreaking performance as 16-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster, a girl who handles her cancer death-sentence with the sort disarming candor, mocking wit and stubborn strength that we’d hope to call upon, under similar circumstances.

In a word, Woodley is a revelation.

A performance starts with the overall appearance, and Woodley looks right, with the sallow, waxy pallor — the aura of illness — that results from a terminal disease. More significantly, though, she projects brittleness and fragility, as if she might shatter from abrupt contact, or simply collapse as her skeletal frame betrays her.

Green’s book persuasively depicts Hazel’s constant battle for breath, her body badly compromised by the papillary thyroid cancer that spawned — in her own words, as lifted from Green’s text — an impressive and long-settled satellite colony in her lungs. Woodley conveys this gasping struggle for oxygen just as convincingly, her gritty, determined gaze never quite concealing the despair that bubbles behind her eyes.

For the benefit of those who don’t yet know this story, yes, it’s a saga of kids with cancer. Nice kids who don’t deserve such a fate, but who — and this is the crux of Green’s novel — refuse to play along with the “pity party” their condition invariably prompts from well-meaning friends and family members. It’s the mantra by which we all live, even if we refuse to admit it: If we can’t be normal, then we demand to be viewed as normal.

Which, of course, is impossible under such circumstances.

Woodley’s Hazel exudes pluck and defiant spirit, while also succumbing believably, at times, to uncertainty and night sweats. The young actress anchors both the story and the film, and she also delivers Hazel’s thoughts and often darkly blunt observations with a voice-over narration always shaded at just the right pitch.

Hazel’s parents, Frannie and Michael, are played with appropriate sensitivity by Laura Dern and Sam Trammell. These two walk a difficult path, vacillating between helicoptering their only child’s every move, and trying to allow her varying levels of independence, even when doing so seems unwise. Dern’s Frannie is the more expressive of the two, and we get a strong sense of this woman’s struggle to do the right thing under circumstances that no parenting manual could have prepared her for.

Trammell’s Michael, thankfully, is a distinct improvement over his literary counterpart, who was insufferably weepy. (Hazel is a well-drawn character; she doesn’t need a weak parent to make her look stronger.) This film’s Michael is more evenly sculpted by Neustadter and Weber; he’s quieter than his wife, which makes a third-act father-daughter scene even more poignant.

Green makes it clear, in his book, that he thinks very little of a certain type of cancer support group. (Ever notice how some so-called therapists seem to need counseling far more than their patients do?) Having done a good thing by enhancing the depiction of Hazel’s father, Neustadter and Weber veer in the wrong direction by turning this story’s support group leader into even more of a cartoon than Green made him.

But that guy’s seen only briefly, serving solely to anchor the gathering where Hazel first encounters the slightly older Augustus “Gus” Waters (Ansel Elgort). He’s a cancer survivor, having surrendered one leg in order to defeat the enemy, present now as moral support for his friend Isaac (Nat Wolff), who’s about to lose his second eye to yet another form of cancer.

Hazel immediately notices that Gus is checking her out: not merely looking, but staring intently with a cocky smile that somehow seems to know her instinctively, intimately, before they’ve even exchanged a word. It’s a charming scene, initially wordless, deftly handled by Boone and the two actors.

Hazel, insecure about her appearance — convinced that the breath-giving cannula forever inserted into her nostrils is a total turn-off, ditto the oxygen tank affixed to the little cart that forever drags in her wake, like a doting puppy — can’t imagine a boy, any boy, finding her worth a second glance, let alone attractive. Gus refuses to play along with such expectations, his considerable charm bulldozing her weak defenses. She can’t help liking him; all too soon, he can’t help loving the girl he insists on calling by both her names: Hazel Grace.

She ... resists. She knows, in her own words, that she’s a grenade: destined to go off, sooner rather than later, leaving anguish in her wake. She can’t imagine surrendering her affections to a boyfriend, and submitting him to such a preordained fate.

She nonetheless shares her favorite novel, which she has read and re-read countless times (and embraces with the passion Green’s fans have showered on this book). The novel is about cancer, but not in a condescending manner; it feels “right” to Hazel. And she has tried in vain to initiate a correspondence with its reclusive author, Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe), an ex-pat American now living in Amsterdam.

The charm of Hazel and Gus’ developing relationship comes from the ordinary little things that enhance their bond, so I’ll not reveal further details. These are fairly ordinary suburban teens rendered “unusual” only by virtue of disease, and it’s frankly refreshing to spend time with young adults who relate to each other in everyday ways, who are smart and witty, and who aren’t richer than God.

That said, Elgort’s Gus may be a bit too perfect. Granted, this character’s self-assurance is intended to contrast Hazel’s insecurities, but Elgort’s version of Gus never puts a foot wrong, always says precisely the right thing, at absolutely the right moment. No question, this performance will turn Elgort into an instant heartthrob for the legions of young women who will pack theaters to see this film, but Neustadter and Weber could have given him a few minor imperfections. I mean, really.

Wolff does a nice job as the soon-to-be-blind Isaac, a character who yields to cynical despair far more readily than his pragmatic friends. Dafoe is just right as the bitter Van Houten, but the stunning Lotte Verbeek is distractingly gorgeous as the author’s secretary/companion (a relationship not made clear in this film).

A few other items to note, regarding the transition from book to screen: Neustadter and Weber wisely dropped the existence of Gus’ former girlfriend, definitely one tragedy too many in Green’s novel. On the other hand, Gus’ parents remain under-developed ciphers here, which is both a shame and a significant narrative loss.

And I’m not sure Boone successfully sells the (literally) crowd-pleasing moment when Hazel and Gus exchange their first kiss: one of the book’s very few clumsy contrivances, which I was willing to forgive in print, but can’t help raising skeptical eyebrows on the big screen.

So no; this film isn’t perfect, but then neither was the book. Nor does either need to be. Both are sincere and heartfelt, and — most crucially — Green’s characters have jumped to the screen with a level of verisimilitude that I’m sure will prompt readers to picture Woodley and Elgort, moving forward, every time the book is read anew.

This is a deeply touching love story, almost never mawkish, and you’ll cry buckets.

Which we should, from time to time. It gives perspective.

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