Skip to main content

And that’s why I don’t have a hamster.

The Fault in Our Stars
(2014)

(SPOILERS) Big C chic for teens, The Fault in Our Stars at least begins with admirable intentions. Perhaps setting out its store so forthrightly, that this is not your classic chocolate box movie romance where everything turns out alright in the end, was unwise. Inevitably the picture pitches headlong into another renowned variant on the genre, the doomed love story, where it becomes difficult to distinguish from its bedfellows.


If John Hughes had tackled terminal illness, it would probably have ended up resembling this adaption of John Green’s young adult novel. That is, the John Hughes who was just past his-teen nostalgia faze and trying his hand at more meaningful ruminations (see She’s Having a Baby). Obviously, I’m not the target audience for Josh Boone’s picture, and I have studiously avoided the annual arrival of a new Nicholas Sparks adaptation. I was curious about this one, though, mostly due to its part Shailene Woodley’s arrival as the next J-Law. She hasn’t yet ascended to such heights, but she’s probably the better actress (certainly, she made Divergence watchable, while Lawrence only really has to show up and Hunger Games works like clockwork around her). True to form, Woodley’s the best thing here.


I can’t speak to the book, but there’s an overwritten broadness to Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber’s screenplay that works in the overwrought world of, say, The Breakfast Club (where kids’ conflations of a harsh world of harsh parents and harsh teachers and bullying peers seem appropriate to their notion that they are centre of the universe), but here is frequently in danger of appearing too much like smug cleverness (which makes sense, given they also penned 500 Days One Summer). The movie so consciously pushes buttons, be it in set pieces, music montages (and Hazel has the cheek to call out the use of Peter Gabriel songs in the romantic slush of yesteryear!), shocking twists of fate, or simply smart-mouthed exchanges, that its notional attempt to serve the reality of terminal illness ends up wrapped in cotton wool. Or rather, in cinematographer Ben Richardson’s cosseting capturing of suffering.


Woodley is also splendidly aided by the various production departments. Every teen girl dreamer will be hoping that, should the writing be on the wall, they will look as adorable as she does. With a stylish cannula ever in place and the most desirable of this season’s haircuts, Hazel Grace is the thyroid cancer sufferer du jour. She is certainly a worthy usurper to Debra Winger’s unassailable throne.


If Hazel starts off being a little overtly witty and knowing, she’s thrown into sharp relief when Ansel Elgort’s Gus (Augustus) arrives at her support group. He’s lost a leg to bone cancer, or the special effects department, but otherwise looks as robustly healthy as only an ex school sports star can be. He’s also possessed with the kind of cocky dream guy confidence that only exists in the movies. When he turns up in a limo to whisk Hazel away to Amsterdam, it’s clearly a rather lame homage to John Cusack with his ghetto blaster.


And, of course, a formulaic romance needs a third wheel, the geeky guy (see Anthony Michael Hall and Jon Cryer in Hughes’ movies), Nat Wolff’s Isaac is on the verge of blindness and replete with “hilarious” anger management issues. Laura Dern (can she be that old now?) is immensely winning as the over-protective mum (True Blood’s Sam Trammell is less persuasive as dad). The soundtrack is precisely tailored, and exactly the kind of thing Hughes would pick were he still alive and making movies (M83, but of course).


The film can’t just be about one, or both, of them dying (and of course it’s not the one we expected, except that as this is fiction for girls, it is really), there has to be a goal in mind. So Hazel dreams of meeting the author who wrote her favourite cancer lit, An Imperial Affliction. Which means travelling to Amsterdam.


Even the great Willem Dafoe cannot salvage the avalanche of clichés that is scribe Peter van Houten. Perhaps Green intends van Houten to be a toxic version of himself, but that’s no excuse (there are parallels to the inspiration for the novel, and they share extremely self-important titles).He’s an abrasive, reclusive drunk. Isn’t that how all authors are? The one saving grace of the character, I thought (or hoped), was that we were going to be left without an explanation of why he was so negative and twisted. It would have given the movie a smidgeon of credibility in not spoon-feeding its audience. Instead, van Houten only goes and rocks up at the end – at Gus’s funeral no less -  full of explanations. The character is only as unsubtle as the movie generally, but this displays particularly overt cynicism.


And the movie in general is much more involving before the Amsterdam jaunt. It’s in Amsterdam that the forced dramatics take over. There’s a bizarre and wholly inappropriate scene where the Hazel and Gus kiss for the first time – in Anne Frank’s house. Even the weird endorsement of applauding onlookers can’t banish the conviction that this really wasn’t the time or the place for such shenanigans.


Later, there are the “cute” capsule scenes. Such as egging Isaacs’ ex’s auto, which we’re supposed to get behind but actually shows that cancer victims can be arseholes too. And the pre-demise eulogies, so the ill-fated can listen to what’s in store for them. The latter particularly preys on teen wish fulfilment, and credit to John Green as he has clearly tapped a vein of teen angst to winning effect. But an actual attitude, rather than a skin deep one, might have been more fitting. The early scenes at the support group suggested the picture might have a caustic Fight Club-lite attitude to the manufactured apparatus that surrounds sufferers of terminal illnesses. Instead, it indulges Romeo and Juliet star-crossed fantasies. That’s fair play, of course. This is a teen romance, and it would be self-defeating to turn off the readership with gruesome details and unfettered despair. But it also means The Fault in Our Stars is nothing special, aside from Woodley’s tremendous performance.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

There are times when I miss the darkness. It is hard to live always in the light.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

I had that Christopher Marlowe in my boat once.

Shakespeare in Love (1998)
(SPOILERS) You see? Sometimes Oscar can get it right. Not that the backlash post-announcement would have you crediting any such. No, Saving Private Ryan had the rug unscrupulously pulled from under it by Harvey Weinstein essentially buying Shakespeare in Love’s Best Picture through a lavish promotional campaign. So unfair! It is, of course, nothing of the sort. If the rest of Private Ryan were of the same quality as its opening sequence, the Spielberg camp might have had a reasonable beef, but Shakespeare in Love was simply in another league, quality wise, first and foremost thanks to a screenplay that sang like no other in recent memory. And secondly thanks to Gwyneth Paltrow, so good and pure, before she showered us with goop.

Move away from the jams.

Aladdin (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was never overly enamoured by the early ‘90s renaissance of Disney animation, so the raves over Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin left me fairly unphased. On the plus side, that means I came to this live action version fairly fresh (prince); not quite a whole new world but sufficiently unversed in the legend to appreciate it as its own thing. And for the most part, Aladdin can be considered a moderate success. There may not be a whole lot of competition for that crown (I’d give the prize to Pete’s Dragon, except that it was always part-live action), but this one sits fairly comfortably in the lead.

What you do is very baller. You're very anarchist.

Lady Bird (2017)
(SPOILERS) You can see the Noah Baumbach influence on Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, with whom she collaborated on Frances Ha; an intimate, lo-fi, post-Woody Allen (as in, post-feted, respected Woody Allen) dramedy canvas that has traditionally been the New Yorker’s milieu. But as an adopted, spiritual New Yorker, I suspect Gerwig honourably qualifies, even as Lady Bird is a love letter/ nostalgia trip to her home city of Sacramento.

The Statue of Liberty is kaput.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)
(SPOILERS) William Goldman said of Saving Private Ryan, referencing the film’s titular objective in Which Lie Did I Tell? that it “becomes, once he is found, a disgrace”. “Hollywood horseshit” he emphasised, lest you were in doubt as to his feelings. While I had my misgivings about the picture on first viewing, I was mostly, as many were, impacted by its visceral prowess (which is really what it is, brandishing it like only a director who’s just seen Starship Troopers but took away none of its intent could). So I thought, yeah Goldman’s onto something here, if possibly slightly exaggerating for effect. But no, he’s actually spot-on. If Saving Private Ryan had been a twenty-minute short, it would rightly muster all due praise for its war-porn aesthetic, but unfortunately there’s a phoney, sentimental, hokey tale attached to that opening, replete with clichéd characters, horribly earnest, honorific music and “exciting!” action to engage your interest. There are…

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

I’m the spoiled toff who lives in the manor.

Robin Hood (2018)
(SPOILERS) Good grief. I took the disdain that greeted Otto Bathurst’s big screen debut with a pinch of salt, on the basis that Guy Ritchie’s similarly-inclined lads-in-duds retelling of King Arthur was also lambasted, and that one turned out to be pretty good fun for the most part. But a passing resemblance is as close as these two would-be franchises get (that, and both singularly failed to start their respective franchises). Robin Hood could, but it definitely didn’t.

I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.

It’s the Mount Everest of haunted houses.

The Legend of Hell House (1973)
(SPOILERS) In retrospect, 1973 looks like a banner year for the changing face of the horror movie. The writing was on the wall for Hammer, which had ruled the roost in Britain for so long, and in the US the release of The Exorcist completed a transformation of the genre that had begun with Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby; the realistic horror film, where the terror was to be found in the everyday (the home, the family). Then there was Don’t Look Now, which refracted horror tropes through a typically Nic Roeg eye, fracturing time and vision in a meditative exploration of death and grief. The Wicker Man, meanwhile, would gather its reputation over the passing years. It stands as a kind of anti-horror movie, eschewing standard scares and shock tactics for a dawning realisation of the starkness of opposing belief systems and the fragility of faith.

In comparison to this trio, The Legend of Hell House is something of a throwback; its slightly stagey tone, and cobweb…