Thursday, 19 June 2014

Review of The Fault In Our Stars (2014)

I should start this review with a caveat- I have not read John Green's "The Fault In Our Stars", the seminal teenage fiction book unanimously praised, universally embraced, unexpectedly loved. I have, however, read his 2006 novel "An Abundance of Katherines", and found it to be a gimmicky, slight and unexceptional piece of sentimental hogwash. It is fitting, then, that these qualities were found in abundance in the film "The Fault In Our Stars, directed by Josh Boone, which at the time of writing stands with an 8.5 rating on IMDb, and a good Metacritic rating of 69. I have long since given up paying attention to the corralling of "fandoms" and arbitrary squabbling surrounding IMDb ratings, but the Metacritic score is harder to unpick. Maybe I've missed the point, or some crucial detail? Somehow, I doubt it.

I should start with the two good things about this film; it's very watchable, and it is well acted. These are quite basic and fundamental qualities, but they are in service of a plot which in itself isn't hooey, but the approach to it is. Shailene Woodley plays Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 16 year old girl with thyroid cancer and complications in her lungs as a result. We first see her looking on in envy at other couples and normal people doing normal things at the shopping mall; she's stuck lugging around an oxygen tank. These early scenes, whilst effective, are misleading, because they set up a film where characters eschew clich├ęs and are critically aware of conventions. Woodley is acerbic, and she paints herself to have a will of steel; to her credit, her character does, aside from in the scenes where the film wants her to be madly in love, in that facile, irritating, teenage way.

Egged on to attend a support group by her well-meaning parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell), once there Hazel meets the flippant yet endearing (in Hazel's eyes at least) Augustus Waters, Gus, played by Ansel Elgort. He's there to support his friend Isaac (Nat Wolff), who has glaucoma and is going to have his eye surgically removed, although he himself had a battle with cancer a few years ago and had his right leg amputated as a result. Hazel and Gus have a meet-cute on the way into the meeting, and this sets up the movie's romance.

It's from here that the film is a straight descent into utter mush. As I have said, the film is very well-acted, and it really, really is. Shailene Woodley's performance is superb, and the fact that she can carry such charisma with an oxygen tank and tubes forever burdening her is quite remarkable. Laura Dern too does a remarkable job as Grace's mother, and her performance is the closest thing to elevating this film; the pain and bravery she conveys, coupled with Woodley's resolve, are almost on a different level.

So what went wrong? The screenplay, for a start, is wonky. The phrase "pain demands to be felt" is uttered three times, and three times too many. And if you ever wanted to hear Willem Defoe ask "are you familiar with Swedish hip-hop?", then by golly this is the film you want. But, dialogue aside, I was mainly disappointed with how the screenplay sets up a film where the characters are going to do everything that doesn't happen in films like this... And yet their romance unfurls in a conventional, middle-of-the-road way. Sure, they have their illnesses, and to the film's credit there is an attempt (read: attempt) to tackle these themes head on. But it descends into the same gumpf that it marks itself out as actively trying to avoid.

This is also one of the most artificial, sterile, white (in terms of production design and skin colour, which struck me as odd) films I have ever seen. I have said it's watchable, but that is mainly because no risks were taken. This film is devoid of any style, any personal touch, any flourish to make us feel as though the film was made by an actual human being. The cinematography by Ben Richardson is unremarkable, and it feels as though the only aim on set was "get the people on the screen, vaguely frame them". The closest we get to anything distinctive is animated speech bubbles containing the texts swapped between Gus and Hazel, although this is quickly becoming a standard technique in Hollywood film-making (this year's "Frank", an infinitely superior film to this, used it to far better effect). The soundtrack too is intrusive, obvious and dull, compiling a playlist of such musical talents as Ed Sheeran (he performed that awfully ill-fitting music during last year's Hobbit credits), Lykke Li, Birdy, and OneRepublic.

Come the inevitable conclusion to this slog, I simply didn't care. I have no doubt that this film will not go away; even considering the fans surrounding it, this is the kind of film that tends to attract the zeitgeist, perhaps giving the illusion that they people have watched something with emotional nuance and depth. In my humble opinion, it is not; it is the stuff of a thousand workaday chick-lits and romcoms, and the fact that it uses cancer as its USP is certainly questionable. It's no more than sentimental hooey.

There is, no doubt, a great story waiting to be made about terminally ill teenagers finding love. This, I can say for certain, is not it.

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