Friday, June 13, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars



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.


While it's a noble goal, the film falls utterly flat in carving out any sort of cinematic sensibility.  There's such an absence of artistry here that, perhaps counter-intuitively, the events on screen feel at a distance. The film doesn't use the tools of the medium to invite the viewer in, but instead seems to rely on the built-in submission of its audience. Consequently, the emotions and dramatic events come on repeatedly, like explosions in an actioner, but each one feels like a missed opportunity from a director not yet sure how to make his mark.  It's too bad, really. Fault is marked by a strong performance from Woodley and a "cancer film" script smart enough to make the film relatively painless. Unlike so many dying heroines, Hazel is a girl to be respected: she's got agency, intelligence, and has conversations that speak to real interests outside of boyfriends and her own sickbed.

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.
This is where the lack of artistry becomes a much larger problem for the film.  For those of us who aren't predisposed to be attached to the characters, there's nothing here to convince us we're watching anything more involved than a rather schmaltzy commercial.  It's flat, bland in a way that makes its every move feel generic instead of 'real', and which -- too often -- allows it to conform to the tropes of B-grade tearjerkers where it could easily, slyly subvert them.  I could never feel, and I knew immediately why: it's flat, artless, lacking in all the medium specific powers of cinema. Instead, it's a serialized string of tragedies married by and dependent on a strong actress who, weirdly, is never properly framed, never properly shot, never properly filmed with the right lens, color, contrast, or general mise-en-scene to allow the viewer to understand her.  We don't experience the emotional transference that happens in something like a lingering glance in Fish Tank. a moment standing still in Garden State, a soundtrack choice in Perks of Being a Wallflower, or even the subtle saturation of last year's Woodley drama, The Spectacular Now.  Fault feels almost like it doesn't have an aesthetic, and as it drags through one lackluster sappy pop song after the next, I actually began to wish it would at least try to use its cinematographic toolbox for some emotional manipulation.  Throw in an extreme close-up, some softer lighting, and a Sharon Van Etten song and boom...you could have had me.  As it stands, though, The Fault in Our Stars is a test case for aesthetics and proof that sometimes it isn't the strength of the story or the actors, it's the choices the director makes that matter.  The options are close off, and yep, it's true: some infinities are bigger than other infinities, and this one is a little smaller than others... 

2 comments:

  1. Great review. I liked the film more than you did, but I read the novel beforehand, so I think our opinions differ. My main problem with the film is that it's hard to separate the novel and the film itself, because I'm uncertain if they're really just great at portraying the roles, or that I'm too enamored with the novel that I like the film immediately. The director did play it self - it just delivered the film based on the writing, and that was that. There was barely any creativity in terms of filming, and maybe the film could have used a moment that would really stand out onscreen - the 'emotional transference' you mentioned.

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    1. I've heard other people, too, say that having an attachment to the book really makes all the difference, and I can see that. It does seem like they really just worked to make it as close as possible, though, and forgot to work a little more at the cinematic aspect. Glad to hear from you on this.

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