If you are someone that read John Green's wildly popular and apparently quite emotionally devastating novel THE FAULT IN OUR STARS and already know you're going to see this film, you don't need to read this review. You already know you're sold on seeing it, so I'm not really addressing you; you're wonderful, magical kids, but this review is more aimed at people who are on the fence about going to see the adaptation from director Josh Boone (STUCK IN LOVE), working from a screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber.
I don't think you have to be a teenager to enjoy THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, but it would probably help. And I say that only to point out that the emotions of the two leads of this film would still be in flux and prone to extremes even if they didn't both have issues with cancer. So what we're left to deal with are two characters whose main means of expression are words like "amazing" and "crazy" and "insane" and "Wow!" And I'm not exaggerating or making fun of the writing here; it's just a fact. But when the have time to prepare, both Hazel and Augustus, or Gus (Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, who play brother and sister in DIVERGENT), prepare such flowery words of love and philosophical outlooks on death and dying that is sounds overly scripted to an embarrassing fault. It doesn't help that Gus spends much of the first part of the film with a smug look on this face that seems to say, "I'm about to blow your mind with the thoughts I'm about to express," and we can't tell if he's thinking that to Hazel or the audience.
The two meet in a support group for kids with cancer, and Gus's main method of seduction is to simply stare at Hazel until she get nervous enough to ask him what the hell he's doing. What's particularly amusing about the course of their relationship is that we're supposed to understand that they are "just friends" for a great deal of their time together because that's what she says to other people, even though he clearly assumes that they're destined to be in love from the start. It sounds sweet, but it's actually ridiculous because it gives him no reason to work at it. He clearly thinks he's hot shit, so he falls back on flashing his smile and plying her with flowery words. They have so few actual conversations that I really struggled to figure out why they fall in love.
The supporting cast barely registers in the shadow of Woodley and Elgort. The closest character that makes an impression on us is Isaac (Nat Wolff), a fellow support-group member who is on the verge of losing his only functioning eye to his cancer, but once he's completely blind, he's funnier than ever. Hazel's parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) are portrayed as people who have been dealing with their only daughter's illness for so long, they have lost the will to direct her to good choices or say No to her about anything.
I realize I'm coming across as doing nothing but bitching about this film—and make no mistake, there's plenty to bitch about—but some of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS also works. Woodley's Hazel is a wonderfully realized character, with enough layers and contradictions to her personality that she is the closest thing to a real human being here. If you find any reason to love this film, it will likely be because of her. That being said, the film is one of the most overly narrated movies I've ever seen (or heard), and Shailene does all the voiceover, leaving us with a severe case of telling and not showing. Rather than let us watch this adorable couple actually go through the motions of falling in love or either of them deal substantially with the ups and downs of their health troubles, we hear about them through from Hazel's point of view.
One of the biggest surprises for me was how much it improved once Gus's health takes a turn for the worse. So many films about people struggling with potentially life-threatening ailments show us strong men and women blazing a trail of positive thinking on the road to healing or death. But here, Gus has an emotional meltdown the likes of which is never seen is these sorts of films, and for one of the few times in THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, I felt like I was watching a real person react the way I'm guessing many people in his situation do, at least at first.
A lot has been made and discussed (and will continue to be for weeks to come) about the sequence in which the pair first kiss—which I fully expect will win Best Kiss at the MTV Movie Awards next year—in the attic of the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam. Yes, it's weird; yes, it reminded me of the "Seinfeld" bit where Jerry admits to making out with a woman during SCHINDLER'S LIST. But the scene doesn't cross any kind of line into bad taste. Hazel is inspired to live a life by actually living it, rather than waiting to die, and she decides the first step down that path is letting love into her heart. It might have happened somewhere a little more appropriate, but you do these things when the spirit grabs hold.
THE FAULT IN OUR STARS' most compelling sequence is the throughline about Hazel meeting the author of her favorite book, which leads to an interesting encounter with said writer (played like a true bastard by Willem Dafoe) in Amsterdam. I won't detail the exchange, but I found it a rather funny and absurd take on the idea that dying kids should get every wish that they want. But there's slightly more to it than that, and it takes a while for the true lesson of that encounter to come to light. It's a rare subtle moment in a movie I wish had had a few dozen more such instances.
The film never seems to want to take the risk that the audience can figure out the emotions itself without being taken by the hand and walked through them step by agonizing step. All of that being said, the audience I saw it with didn't just cry opening; there was legitimate sobbing happening in more than one spot. Sure, make me feel like the crazy, heartless one.
THE FAULT IN OUR STARS is a deeply flawed film that has just enough going for it to make it impossible to just dismiss in total. I'd almost recommend it just for Woodley's performance, but there were just too many times when I found myself catching her trying to work around some truly poor writing. Still, it's undeniable as an effective piece of emotional manipulation that will likely have you in full weep mode, and there are worse things to go through, I suppose.