It doesn't matter what old people like me think of Josh Boone's The Fault in Our Stars. It's going to be modern classic whether we're with it or against it. It's a triumph of the human spirit and unregulated cell growth. It's for teens to believe in, and it's been a while since teens have had something to believe in. So what difference will it make if I say that The Fault in Our Stars is bland and corny?
The movie is based on John Green's rabidly beloved young-adult novel about young people with cancer. It stars Shaliene Woodley, whose years-long flirtation with superstardom could, thanks to this movie, become a marriage. Ansel Elgort is the love interest of Woodley's character, who is adorable and nonthreatening but def masc. (Last night, just hours after the first national showings, the name of his character, Agustus Waters, was trending on Twitter.)
Stars reminded me of HBO's Looking in that the most interesting things about these characters is not who they are, but what they are: teenagers dealing with cancer. Woodley is Hazel, a 16-year-old with thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs, forcing her to lug around an oxygen tank with her at all times. Cancer has apparently made her butch. She sports a gay-mom(-who-doesn't-know-she's-gay[-or-does-she]) haircut, a low, scratchy voice, and a sour disposition. Engort's Gus, on the other hand, is charming, adorable, witty, outgoing, and confident as fuck. When we meet him, Gus has conquered osteosarcoma, but not before getting his leg amputated as a result. It's done nothing to diminish his spirit. That this character is a virgin is maybe the least believable thing about this movie. I know he plays a kid, but some kids get laid, and this kid should get the most laid.
Gus literally runs into Hazel at a support group she begrudgingly attends ("Uggggggggh," is her default response to everything). He's to support a friend who's not doing as well with his battle against cancer. You can guess the rest. They fall in love "the way you fall asleep: slowly and then all at once," she tells us.
There's a lot of language in the script riding the fine and teen-friendly line between eloquent and cheesy. But this is what The Fault in Our Stars has going for it—the chance to say new things about a subject as old as love. And it really does try to say something. But saying is all it's really good for. There's no real reason for these two to be in love, no particularly refined chemistry between Woodley and Elgort. They just are, they just do. The movie feels very much like an adaptation; it tells but doesn't show. She is brusque! He is making your panties wet! She says, "I'm a grenade! One day I'm gonna explode and obliterate everyone." He says, "It would be a privilege to have my heart broken by you." She says maybe life has no point; he refuses to accept that as an answer. He says, "Your hands are cold." She says, "Oh, not so much cold as under-oxygenated." He's a one-man marching band; she's a Debbie Downer sad trombone sound.
Obviously, they're perfect for each other.
Otherwise, performances are fine. He manages to make an irritating quirk—sucking on unlit cigarettes—and the ensuing irritating explanation—"It's a metaphor, see? You put the thing that does the killing between your teeth, but you never give it the power to kill you. A metaphor"—something close to charming, at least for a while. Woodley is just preternaturally watchable, a real star who's more willing to get her hands dirty than, say, Jennifer Lawrence. (I dare Lawrence to stomp around an entire movie with a tube shoved up her nose.) Laura Dern plays Hazel's mother, a thankless, nothing role for which she dons frantically happy eyes with a layer of sadness just beneath. This is as appropriate for playing a mother of a kid with cancer as it is for silently mourning the kind of underwhelming roles for which she now must settle. Laura Dern is so much better than this shit. In fact, you want a love story? Watch Wild at Heart. Or Blue Velvet, even.
The Fault in Our Stars is like the inverse of a superhero movie in that you go into it knowing that not everything is going to be all right by the end. And so it isn't. You're there to cry. And so you shall. (I didn't. This is no lie: I teared up way more at How To Train Your Dragon 2.)
I won't give away what happens or its nature, but I will say that no surprise is surprising in Stars. There is a nice bit toward the end that I thought was actually poetic (and it checks out scientifically): The notion that not all infinities are the same size is mentioned, and musing on that, one character says to another, "I can't tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. You gave me forever within the numbered days, and for that I am eternally grateful."
I think that's lovely. I think it will resonate, as will much of The Fault in Our Stars. It's quite possible that this movie, like a particularly tenacious bout of cancer, will be with us for the rest of our lives. Get ready for an eternal infinity.