New ‘love story’ update gambles by doubling down on the terminal illness angle
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Photo: Ansel Elgort as Gus and Shailene Woodley as Hazel in “The Fault in Our Stars”; Rating: PG-13, Grade: B-
“The Fault in Our Stars” by young adult fiction author and Indianapolis, Ind. native John Green gets adapted here by screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (the writing and producing team behind “The Spectacular Now” and “500 Days of Summer”) and director Josh Boone (“Stuck in Love”). There’s no fault in the inevitable comparisons to the 2002 romantic drama “A Walk to Remember,” which was based on a Nicholas Sparks novel about a terminally ill young woman (Mandy Moore) who, despite the circumstances, falls in love with a seemingly hopeless bad boy type (Shane West).
It is now confession time – I’m a huge fan of “A Walk to Remember.” The movie falls into what others might want to deem a guilty pleasure, but I am resolutely unburdened by guilt, in spite of the onslaught of clichés it lines up for its sentimental parade because what it does best is embrace its earnestness. The narrative dispenses with any need to be hip rather early on, allowing for a Midwestern wholesomeness to take over, creating what amounts to a period piece with a neo-contemporary pose. For a diehard romantic like myself, what you end up with is a winning timelessness that doesn’t let go, in large part, thanks to a gawkily plain performance from Moore, a time-stamped pop star who, at that particular moment in her career, obviously wasn’t concerned with her image. Remember though, this was in the pre-social media age.
“The Fault in Our Stars” ups the ante though by having Hazel (Shailene Woodley), a cancer-stricken young woman who must wheel around a portable oxygen tank, stumble into a relationship with Gus (Ansel Elgort), a wise-beyond-his years young man who happens to be in remission. The two meet at a cancer support group that Hazel’s parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell, doing their best to pretend to be square parental types but every effort shows) have forced her to attend, and it is not immediately obvious that Gus is any worse for wear. It is not until he’s in full-on wooing that we get a glimpse of his prosthetic leg, but it matters little because he is so drunk in love with Hazel at first sight he’s walking on air.
The problem with this, in my estimation, and what separates “The Fault in Our Stars” from “A Walk to Remember,” is that Gus, for all his eagerness and his impossibly sunny disposition, lacks a core degree of emotional believability. This is a carefully scripted act aiming to wring cheap sentiment from us, but it is mixed into a cocktail of hip angst and the prevailing young adult perspective that hones in on worlds of experience that revolve solely on teen and post-teenage protagonists – to a fault. This is a bit of a departure from the Sparks writing model that crafts syrupy dramas for readers of all ages with the expectation the age of the protagonists doesn’t dictate or exclude readership associations.
If the young audiences flocking to the multiplexes could tear themselves away from the delicate sweetness of Woodley and Elgort’s exchanges (the pair are familiar to audiences from “Divergent”), they would realize there is, in fact, less for them to truly feel in the drama. For a story that hinges on inevitable loss, it is a downright anxiety-free affair because we know nothing will happen until its appointed time, and despite its rather long run-time (a little over 2 hours), the pain isn’t prolonged. Everyone involved with the production wants it, and us, to feel everything will be all right.
It would seem heartless to label “The Fault in Our Stars” a trumped-up cancer scare, although the premise, in its effort to double down on the terminal drama, does come across as a cynical update of the classic “love story.”
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com.