By Simon Miraudo
May 28, 2014
As far as crazes amongst teenagers go, the ‘slow-death fantasy’ is a weird (if not new) one. Its most modern incarnation, John Green’s bestselling novel The Fault in Our Stars, has struck quite a chord; certainly if my screening of Josh Boone‘s feature adaptation is any indication. The audience tittered and awed at the introduction of Ansel Elgort‘s manic pixie dream dude Augustus Waters, a sexy cancer survivor with an enthusiastic outlook on life and an endless reservoir of love for the similarly-terminal Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley). Not even the miscasting of the stiff, model-handsome Elgort in the intense ‘John Cusack’ role could stifle the crowd’s adoration of that character (or, at least, how he was originally created by Green and imprinted onto fans of the book). Fair enough. Young adult crowds have had to deal with – and fall for – worse. If you were to put Elgort up against a talking hatstand like Taylor Lautner, he’d seem impossibly charismatic too.
Woodley needs no bland counterpart to seem compelling by comparison; a hugely-appealing cross between Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Stone, playing the rosiest-cheeked person to ever be at death’s door. Her creaky-voiced Hazel Grace (daughter of the equally creaky-voiced and even more delightful Laura Dern here) is a straight-shooting sixteen-year-old who long ago accepted her diagnosis. She defuses the awkwardness of publicly dying – and carrying around an oxygen tank – with a spunky attitude. In a lot of ways, The Fault in Our Stars feels like Easy A for the eager-to-be-bummed-out set.
When Earth angel Augustus literally runs into her at a church group (led by the criminally underutilised comedian Mike Birbiglia), Hazel Grace finally meets someone she’d truly be afraid to farewell. Augustus, as all good manic pixie dream dudes must do, makes it his mission to grant all of Hazel Grace’s lingering wishes, from hosting impromptu picnics to gifting her with a trip to Amsterdam where she can meet her favourite ever author, all the while dangling unlit cigarettes from his lip. It’s a metaphor about choosing to put the thing that could kill him in his mouth. Back in Laura Dern’s own tale of young lovers battling the world, Wild at Heart, Nicolas Cage wore a snakeskin jacket and called it a symbol of his individuality and belief in personal freedom. That was way cooler. Augustus’ affectation inspires eye-rolls that threaten to eject eyeballs from their very sockets.
Elgort isn’t entirely bad though, and, in the more emotional moments, he finds some truth . A riskier, more interesting actor – like a young Cage – could have probably given Augustus more meaningful shades. It is unique, however, to see the cinematic flibbertigibbet’s gender role reversed. In some ways I feel like The Fault in Our Stars has clarified for me how many women must feel about their own representations in countless romantic comedies. I get it now. I get it all too well. I mean, I got it back when Kirsten Dunst kept taking photos with her “invisible camera” in Elizabethtown, solving all of Orlando Bloom‘s problems for reasons known only to herself, but I get it more now, I suppose.
The Fault in Our Stars undeniably sets us up to knock us down, with a weepie climax that shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s read or seen one of these things before. The movie, cutely, announces its grim destination before the opening title card, revealing a sly, frank sense of humour that comments on and yet never undercuts the tale’s tragic finale. Louis C.K. has a stand-up bit about the young panicking over maybe not living a long life, and the relief that comes with reaching 40 and realising you’ve passed a meaningless milestone, making it now safe to cark it. The Fault in Our Stars, in its most touching and perceptive moments, makes the case for the value in a short life; Hazel Grace and Augustus learning to acknowledge and appreciate their “little infinity”. And yet, at one point in the picture, there’s a make-out session in Anne Frank’s attic. That’s not a scene I would describe as either ‘touching’ or ‘perceptive’.
Boone’s film is serviceably directed, with only a few flourishes in the way of dynamic text messages littering the screen. Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber perhaps over-indulge the novel by including numerous sequences that could have easily been left to fall by the wayside (and brought this production in well under the two hour mark). Still, The Fault in Our Stars drew a tear from me. That’s not so impressive. I’ll cry during the Parks and Recreation theme tune. The reaction from the audience, however, was close to primal scream therapy, and that should speak significant volumes, just as their collective, seemingly-synchronised sighs did throughout.
The Fault in Our Stars arrives in Australian cinemas June 5, 2014.