Things I did during The Fault in Our Stars: I tried not to laugh at sobbing teenagers. I failed at trying not to laugh at sobbing teenagers. I peered back in the darkness to try and gauge how many teenagers were sobbing. I passed a packet of kleenex to my friend. Things I did not do during The Fault in Our Stars: Cry. Really, I didn't even come close to the possibility of crying, and since sitting and listening to all that muffled sniffling I've been thinking about why this thing just didn't work for me.
The film is adapted from John Green's young adult best seller, a relatively acclaimed piece of work that has found its share of success with book lovers. Though I'll own up to not having read it (I tend not to run towards novels about dying kids) I know that John Green isn't Nicholas Sparks, that he's trying to reprogram a certain type of story and that everything from the prologue on in The Fault in Our Stars wants to prove that it's a subversion of sappy melodrama. When we meet 16-year old Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), she tells us as much: that this time things are going to be raw, we're going to see the breathing tubes and understand last ditch romances aren't necessarily the stuff of hazy, soft-focus Hollywood.
Still, Fault is a love story (or, a 21st century Love Story), and Hazel alone doesn't make up the whole picture. She's matched with the smart-talking but not so smart Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), an absurdly named survivor she meets in a church-basement support group. "Gus" immediately takes a shine to young Hazel and attempts to woo her with movie watching and an eye roll of "a metaphor." He's the kind of kid who likes to hold an unlit cigarette between his lips because he's keeping death close, neutering it by not flicking open a lighter. You know the type, and Elgort can pull it off well enough. He has a puckish, kind of rubbery face that's likable enough but never sincere. He's charming but stiff, rigid where Woodley is fluid, and, weirdly, out of his element in every moment on screen with her. We're looking at a mismatched pair for much of the movie, and by the time we hit a string of crucial emotional climaxes on a shared vacation, he reads as a sort of accessory to Hazel's more acute faculties. In short, he's the sad puppy dog who helps her tote her oxygen. You can grow attached to a sad puppy dog, sure, but the characters aren't operating on the same level.