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Friday, June 6, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars Review: Overly-long Cryfest

The Fault in Our Stars is way too long but says so little.

"This is the truth. Sorry." This begins the YA cry-fest The Fault in Our Stars, a film about the difficult subject of teen cancer. And while it tries to tell the truth about love in the waning months of life, Fault never gets to the heart of the matter.

Starring Shailene Woodley, Fault centers around 16-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster, a child who's lived with cancer for most of her life. She's a survivor, but the by-product has lessened her ability to breathe, forcing her to don an oxygen tank 24/7. It's at a cancer support group that she meets the 18-year-old Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), a former basketball star whose prosthetic leg doesn't dull his sense of humor or from trying to woo Hazel. Soon, the two become inseparable, with Hazel sharing a favorite book by the author Van Houten (Willem Dafoe) and wishing he would answer her questions about the book's odd ending. The two decide to fly to Amsterdam to meet him, but ultimately fall in love instead. As cancer returns to claim one life, the other must find a way to both live without their soulmate and survive the spectre of death.

Writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber walk a very fine line in adapting John Green's best-selling novel into a movie, many times tripping over sentimentality in the process. Their efforts to find a balance between a telling a human story of survival and a relationship cut short are constantly at odds, particularly as the film nears its conclusion. The result is something that feels more like an afternoon special than a poignant and powerful message about chasing your dreams, or coming to terms with death, or blah blah blah. Don't get us wrong: no parent should have to bury their children, but Fault doesn't handle the bigger picture of death all that well. While the writing team tells the first part of this film well enough - one that sees our lovers come together - they totally miss a far more powerful one, namely in how one must now live without the other.

Director John Boone helps only slightly by getting good performances from Woodley and parent Laura Dern. Elgort doesn't have Woodley's stage presence, nor does he have the range of emotions that come through Woodley's expressive eyes. She is a loveable lead, and her simple makeup is a contrast to the strength which she portrays Hazel - she's tough without being angry, bright without being arrogant, and grounded about her chances of survival. She's the quiet hero, which is in strict contrast to Elgort, whose flourishes include brandishing an unlit cigarette as an act of defiance against his status. His spark is somewhat welcome but not in any way reflective of most 18-year-olds. But beyodn that, the pieces here don't fit especially well: Boone surrounds Fault with too many sappy Grey's Anatomy-like ballads and even takes questionable steps by placing our teens in none other than Anne Frank's house while on their tour to Amsterdam. The reasons for this - and its ultimate effect - are never explored, representing a lost opportunity and wasted screen time.

Fault runs at a dragging 125 minutes, but it feels as though the last 15 minutes was cut from the film - we never learn Hazel's fate, front-loading the first act to the point that the third is nearly dropped in our laps, perhaps echoing the plot of Hazel's book. Dafoe is reduced to a crass, unsympathetic drunk whose hand-delivery of Gus' last words to Hazel feels entirely unnecessary, even though he spurns the couple when they meet in Amsterdam. His entire story is unessential to the plot, offering only superficial details about a connection that should never have been made in the first place, or perhaps done a lot better.

Woodley is definitely being groomed for a Jennifer Lawrence-type career, starring in big-budget flicks like Divergent while seeking smaller roles that could eventually nab Oscar glory. Fault is not that film - it sugar-coats a devastating disease with too many tears and promises left unfulfilled.

We try to leave our masculinity at the door for every picture, analyzing each based on its merits. So we feel confident in stating our concerns for Fault, which glosses over the details of cancer while taking too long to tell only half of the story. It's an overly-long cryfest that will connect with Woodley's superfans, while the guys will be begging to see Godzilla or X-Men. Others not tied to Woodley will emerge from the theater wondering why the high stakes established in Act 1 were overly softened by the melodramatic and drawn-out end. It might sell more tickets than the far-superior Edge of Tomorrow, but that doesn't mean it's better.

The Fault in Our Stars is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some sexuality and brief strong language and has a runtime of 125 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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