Sunday, June 8, 2014

Review: The Fault in Our Stars

Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.
You might think that "The Fault in Our Stars," based on the best selling YA novel of the same name by John Green, will be the tearjerker of the week - and you'd be correct, but not in a negative connotation. Yes, it uses a disease to milk tears from the audience much like "The Notebook," but it's significantly better than that vastly overrated movie due to the effective performances by its two leads.

"Fault" does not get off to the greatest start. The film seems to overcompensate in trying to sell us on the idea that it is not a three hanky weeper by adding a certain level of goofiness that begins with the meet-cute between its cancer patient protagonists - Hazel (Shailene Woodley) and Gus (Hansel Elgort) - at a support group and reaches its crescendo during a sequence in which Gus's near-blind pal Isaac (Nat Wolff) smashes some trophies for comedic effect.

Despite needing a bit of humor to add to the increasingly sad proceedings that are to come, "Fault" gets better as it becomes more serious. Woodley gives one of her best performances to date as Hazel, a girl who has lived longer than she has been told she would and has a certain realistic approach to life. Elgort compliments her nicely as Gus, a handsome, eager young man who lost a leg to cancer, but remains positive about living a full life. Laura Dern provides some nice supporting work as Hazel's mother.

The film's plot takes a turn that would feel contrived in another movie, but works well enough here. Hazel and Gus take a trip to Amsterdam to meet with an author Hazel admires who wrote a book she feels truly captures the experience of terminal illness. The author is played by Willem Dafoe, a wonderful actor giving a slightly strange portrayal of an embittered man who answers questions with mathematical equations and references to Swedish hip hop. However, the other sequences involving the trip - including a trip to the Anne Frank House and an expensive dinner - play more smoothly.

Although "Fault" is not always completely successful balancing comedy and drama, the strong performances and fleshed-out characters give it balance. And when the three-hanky scenes finally arrive, they're well enough earned. There have been numerous films about people suffering from cancer, but "Fault" manages to give the slightly worn out genre a fresh spin. And as for films based on YA novels, it's certainly a nice reprieve from stories about mopey vampires. Hazel and Gus feel like real people with joys and sorrows, rather than just tragic figures, which is ultimately what makes this film work.

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