In the exquisitely tasteful adaptation of John Green’s romantic cancer book The Fault in Our Stars, two mortally ill teens struggle to identify something in their fleeting existence that will endure. Sixteen-year-old Hazel (Shailene Woodley) projects her own mortality onto the world: Humans will perish, she says, and no one will remember Mozart, let alone someone like her—so what’s the point? Enter handsome high-school ex–basketball star Augustus (Ansel Elgort), who lost part of one leg but is now in remission. He falls for Hazel on sight and—in his witty, winsome way—fights against her nihilism. Oblivion is unacceptable, he says. There must be a point. Although Hazel and Augustus speculate about God and heaven, it’s no surprise where that point is finally found: in the infinity that is their love.
I know people who wept watching the trailer, which features the first and last lines and gives away nearly everything else. (And they say critics spoil movies.) They’ll probably sob at the film, too—although for pure, concentrated pathos, it’s hard to beat that trailer. There were times I felt a tingling in my tear ducts and almost let loose. But something rubbed me wrong about the opening voice-over, in which Hazel warns that the story she’s about to tell won’t be like one of those movies where everything gets solved with “a Peter Gabriel song.” (Dear Hazel: Eat me. Sincerely, Lloyd Dobler.) What’s being peddled as the raw truth is pretty slick. As directed by Josh Boone, written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber of (500) Days of Summer, and packed with soon-to-be hits by Ed Sheeran and others, The Fault in Our Stars is engineered to wriggle around your defenses. Hazel and Augustus trade quips (“I love it when you talk medical to me”) and do all sorts of goofy things, but just when you’re lulled into believing you’re watching a romantic comedy, you get slapped into silence by the return of the Big C.
The film does, however, have the best weapon in the world against the perception of slickness: an actress without a smidgen of actressiness. Woodley has a face that can look plain in repose and startlingly beautiful in motion, when her delicate pink skin becomes near translucent. I know it’s the way of all saps to believe that actors are as warm and true in life as they are onscreen, but if I ever heard that Woodley were an insufferable diva, I’m not sure I could handle it. Emma Roberts, sure. But not Shailene.
Elgort isn’t so convincing, though few other actors could pull off a part this phony—and don’t say, “But I love Augustus,” because I do, too, much as I love Casper the Friendly Ghost. When Hazel says she’ll break his heart, he replies, “It would be a privilege to have my heart broken by you.” When she says she’s a “grenade” that could explode at any time, he replies, “It would be an honor to have your innards dribbling down my face.” (Not really, but he could have.) He uses her middle name—Hazel Grace—to remind her (and us) she’s an angel. Even his creepiness is meant to be endearing. The way he stares and stares at her: It’s not stalkerish, it’s cutting adorably to the chase. He often has a cigarette in his mouth, not to smoke but to symbolize his defiance of death. (The constant association between tobacco and the grave is laudable, although to my taste Augustus still looks too glamorous waving that cancer stick around.) It’s probably a testament to Woodley that I ended up setting aside my doubts like a loving parent: “I don’t buy him, but if he makes her happy …”
To elevate the story to the level of myth, Green sends the couple on a quest to meet the reclusive author of a book Hazel loves about a girl with cancer—a novel that cuts off annoyingly at the moment of death, much like the finale of The Sopranos. Hazel needs to know what happens to the other characters—an obvious extension of her need to know what will happen to her parents and friends in a world without her in it. The subplot is tolerably meta on the page but too literary onscreen, although it does give Willem Dafoe a fun scene as the clammy Dutch boozehound with a beard crawling up his face like a fungus. And it’s a welcome change of scenery, transporting our heroes to the romantic paradise that is Amsterdam and that most aphrodisiacal of sites, the Anne Frank House, where Hazel is finally compelled to surrender to her passion. Their clinch is a mite tacky, but at least it’s not Dachau.
The intriguing Nat Wolff (late of the Naked Brothers Band) supplies some bite as Augustus’s friend Isaac, who loses both his second eye and his girlfriend at roughly the same moment. (The message: Not all “love” is for always.) And Laura Dern is a perfect match for Woodley as Hazel’s emotionally overflowing mother, her squiggly mouth even wider than usual. Whatever its faults (they’re not in its stars), the movie evokes the heightened intensity of life in the shadow of death—the drive to create meaning where none (probably) exists.