Every couple of years or so, a new movie/television show comes out about cancer that critics deem ‘refreshing’ because the protagonist, usually female, loves irony, has cancer, uses monotone. In 2001, there was Wit, followed by 2010’s The Big C, and now in 2014 we have The Fault in Our Stars, a melodramatic YA weepie about two semi-sarcastic teenage cancer victims who fall in love. And yes, it’s way more interesting and much less paternalistic to watch a story about cancer conducted entirely in finger quotes. To the credit of Director Josh Boone, the protagonists of The Fault in Our Stars feel and move like world-weary WB outcasts. They are attractive and confident and use complex, nuanced sentence structures in their conversations about death. Still, underneath The Fault in Our Stars’ acerbic exterior is a classic Hollywood weepie, structurally engineered to make everyone in the audience pop a sob. And while tears are great (and sometimes weirdly attractive – you know?), The Fault in our Stars works so hard to make us emote that at times it feels manipulative, a little gross. Think of it as the 12 Years A Slave of cancer: a well-intentioned film dead set on showing off its pain, no matter what the cost to the story.
Starring Shailene Woodley from Divergent and Laura Dern from Way Better Shit, The Fault in Our Stars tells the story of two teenage lovers pulled together by cancer. Hazel (Woodley) is a cynical teenage cancer victim who is forced to carry around an oxygen tank full time and goes to a weekly faith-based support group led by Patrick (Mike Birbiglia), just to please her mom (Dern). While there, she meets Augustus (Ansel Engort), a young Aryan cancer survivor who lost his leg to the disease years ago. It’s love at first sight, because duh, and Gus soon charms Hazel by placing a cigarette between his lips and pronouncing it a metaphor. “It’s a metaphor, see” Gus says, “you put the killing thing right between your teeth, but you don’t give it the power to do its killing.” I mean, okay dude, but (1)the device you’re using is symbolism, not metaphor, and (2)announcing to your audience that what you’re doing is metaphorical (!!!) is kind of a conversational boner-killer.
It may seem like a small criticism to make, but Gus’ error is symptomatic of the script that follows: sharp enough, thoughtful enough, but obscenely dramatic, and technically – a little bit off. Gus and Hazel have an immediate chemistry, and the two spend the rest of the movie exchanging Veronica Mars style barbs and being effortlessly kind to each other. At times, their patter feels fun and amusing, but occasionally, it comes across disingenuous – constructed more to generate an audience laugh than to actually represent how teenagers talk and feel (here’s key words: “poorly” and “bad”). When Gus takes Hazel home after their first support group (FIRST support group? Well-played, dude!), the two discuss video games and their favorite “great works of literature.” Gus likes zombie books, Hazel loves the ‘Europeans,’ but the two are joined together by a love of elaborate sentence clauses, and, you know, cancer.
It doesn’t take long before Hazel and Gus move on from conversations about the canon to texting, calling, almost making out. Their relationship proceeds slowly at first, before quickly speeding up, and the two profess their – how could this possibly be a spoiler alert – undying love for each other. Gus takes Hazel on a beautiful countryside picnic, Hazel reads Gus selections from her weird, existentialist book, and it’s all one gorgeous sunlit Katy Perry fantasy montage. They wait to have sex, and they ask all the important questions. They spend time getting to know each other, they never lose their patience. Hazel and Gus’ love is rendered all the more powerful by their effortless charm, well-punctuated dialogue, and the fact that they’re dying of, you know, cancer.
And that’s where the movie’s main problem (well, one of the problems – there’s another big one coming) lies. The Fault in Our Stars wants so desperately to be a movie that takes a smart, unsentimental look at cancer. But the core of its story is teenage fantasy, and while that’s perfectly ok in normal circumstances, it feels grossly misplaced in a movie trying so hard to be realistic about death. Gus’ attraction to Hazel is immediate, despite the fact that she has an oxygen tank and HELLO a Laura Bush haircut circa 2002. Hazel never once talks back to her parents, no matter how much they try to minimize their feelings or infantilize her pain. And even though Hazel says Gus eventually “breaks down” with his disease, we see no evidence of it. I don’t know who slipped these kids JFK benzos, but Hazel and Gus remain effortlessly charming and cool under pain. Fair enough, but anyone’s who’s ever had to watch anyone else die knows that humans – they’re human. We act out, we run out, we flip out – and give us a break, we’re dying. Hazel and Gus are so perfect and mature it hurts, and it’s a real (if accidental) disservice to the real humans out there who throw books, start fights, plain suffer.
None of this is to say that the movie is without empathy. There’s one super smart scene where Gus takes his best friend Isaac (played by an excellent Nat Woolf) out to egg his ex-girlfriend’s house. Isaac, who suffers from cancer himself, has been rendered blind by the disease and struggles to get his aim. What could be a totally pitiable moment (aww, look at the blind guy! Trying to throw like he can see . . . soooo cute), quickly turns into an empowering one. Gus makes a joke behind Isaac’s back, prompting Isaac to say: “Man, I’m blind, not deaf. I can hear your disability joke!” Looking at this on paper, it sounds like a diversity training improv, and I’m a little ashamed I put it down. But hearing it live in the theater, everyone laughed, and I couldn’t help but think the scene successfully struck the balance between sarcasm and real feeling.
Unfortunately, the movie loses whatever edge it had up to this point, and the remainder 100/100 million minutes are dedicated to mostly unwatchable, totally soporific, unrefined syrupy melodrama. I know it’s hard to do a movie about children dying that’s not all “children dying,” but The Fault in Our Stars unfairly stretches out the painful sequences, using every trick, every level, every pulley, to get us to cry. There’s long-winded speeches, split-second character redemptions, car and rain sequences. Even Gus and Hazel’s first kiss is shared not in a park, not on a boat, but in the living room of ANN FRANK’S HOUSE, her dying words echoing through the speakers as the two swap tongue. Now I went to see The Fault in Our Stars at a theater where – I guarantee you – eight out of ten audience members don’t have a moral code. But almost everyone was jumping out of their seats at this point, either shaking their heads or loudly and proudly “Ahahaha-ing.” A teenage make-out sequence set to a holocaust soundtrack? That takes all the awards, I don’t even know who’s giving them out, but it takes all of ‘em.
Last weekend, The Fault in Our Stars opened to the tune of $82 million dollars, a remarkable accomplishment, given that it cost just $12 million to make. It’s a little bit unnerving to me that so many people would want to show up to a movie about hilarious dying kids, but I’m told the book was excellent, and besides, Blended’s on the roster. Sure, the movie features strong performances by both Woodley and Dern, and yes, the dialogue works hard to strike depth beyond the surface. Nothing could be worse than a movie about disease where the characters become their disease, and The Fault in Our Stars gives its characters a life outside the confines of their hospital beds. Still, at the heart of this story is a conventional teenage fantasy, uncomfortably attached to a cancer storyline. Average characters rise to become purebred martyrs, sanctified by death. Metaphors are confused with symbolism, melodrama with depth, sympathy with empathy. The Fault in Our Stars begs us to cry, and that’s where it loses its composure.
Heather Dockray is a comedian and storyteller living in Brooklyn, NY. You can see more of Heather’s work at www.heatherdockray.com, follow her on twitter @Wear_a_helmet, and email her at email@example.com if you aren’t from Moveon.org