In all honesty, I had a hard time finding any enthusiasm for this one. I'm still exhausted with coming-of-age dramas after all the ones I've sat through in the past couple of years, and the whole "YA novel adaptation" trend is already played out. Still, when a film gets a Tomatometer in the upper 80s, attention must be paid. And anyway, it's a Shailene Woodley picture about a teenage romance that deals with mature themes. The Spectacular Now was something similar and that turned out okay. (Side note: Incidentally, the screenplay for The Fault in Our Stars was written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the very same writers who previously adapted The Spectacular Now for the screen.)
So I went into this one with a dutifully open mind. And even after seeing it, I'm still ambivalent.
The story is simple. Hazel Grace Lancaster (Woodley) is a teenager living with thyroid cancer that's spread to her lungs. The only reason she's still alive is some experimental drug that miraculously gave her a few extra years. Still, she's dying and understandably upset about it. Actually, it's more like she's passive-aggressive about it. She goes through the first act with a snarky kind of nihilism, like she's in denial about how depressed she is because she doesn't want to bring anyone else down. You get the idea.
Anyway, the support group meetings do nothing for her until she meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), who survived a tumor that took his right leg below the knee. So the cancer patient and the cancer survivor fall instantly in love.
On the surface, there's nothing objectively wrong with the film. The visuals are good, the cast is rock-solid, and the chemistry between Woodley and Elgort is absolutely perfect. Yet something felt strangely off.
The big problem, I think, is in the characters. Hazel's parents are played very well by Laura Dern and Sam Trammell, but they don't really do much of anything except act all happy and supportive. They do such a good job of hiding whatever pain they might be suffering that we the audience never get to see it.
Augustus has a similar problem. He's a relentlessly energetic ray of sunshine, so determined to ignore his medical history that he barely even walks with a limp. Any internal conflict he might have completely fails to register. Not only does this make the romance storyline entirely one-sided, but it makes Augustus seem way too perfect. He looks and acts far too good to be true, such an impossibly perfect match for Hazel that he feels contrived.
The character doesn't feel authentic, and therefore the romance doesn't feel authentic. And it isn't just Gus, either. There's a point when Hazel pushes Gus away because she's dying and doesn't want to hurt him and we're really doing this even though we all know they're getting back together at the end? Even worse is a time when the two of them make out in public and everyone around them starts applauding. That is so stupid and phony in so many ways.
Most of the character development and internal conflict in this film go to Hazel, so we're stuck watching her as she tries to enjoy life with the knowledge that it could all end in a moment. It's such a damn shame that the film keeps hitting that one same note over and over again, because it gets very bland very quickly. The premise for this film lends itself to so many different plotlines as different characters suffer in different ways, and we get a few rare examples to prove it.
For example, there's a scene in which Isaac (the comic relief character, played by Nat Wolff) learns that his girlfriend has dumped him just before he's set to go in for surgery. So Isaac is breaking stuff in the background while Hazel and Gus try to have a casual conversation. The contrast is heartfelt and very funny in execution. Then we have the storyline in which Hazel and Gus travel all the way to Amsterdam to meet their favorite author. It's a long story and I don't dare spoil anything about the meeting, except to say that it's some great dramatic stuff with a hefty dose of intriguing themes. It's a great scene. Oh, and there's the dinner date scene when Hazel and Gus talk about their funeral plans in a candid and open manner. Woodley and Elgort strike the perfect balance of comedy and drama in that scene while making it clear just how comfortable these characters have gotten to be with each other. It's amazing.
Basically, I thought that the film was slickly produced and superbly acted, but too bland for my liking. I could understand why some people might enjoy it, but the first two acts just weren't for me. And then the third act happened.
I had my problems with this movie through the first hour and a half, but it ends strong. Sweet motherfucker of all mercy, does this film end strong.
When the third act starts, that's when all the pent-up internal drama of this film finally breaks. That's when these characters are finally moved to cut loose and have fun like they really will die tomorrow. That's when the characters finally drop the bullshit, expressing their fears and hopes and sorrows in ways that are sincere and heartfelt. For thirty straight minutes, we watch the characters tear their own hearts open for each other and for the audience to see. Through the entire third act, the characters lean on and fight with each other, making some deeply incisive and passionate remarks about loving, losing, living, and dying along the way.
Basically, I spent the whole third act with my jaw on the floor, demanding to know why the whole movie wasn't like this.
I have a really hard time with The Fault in Our Stars because it's one-fourth of a great movie. The first two acts were bland, but the third act is a soul-rending, heartbreaking, mind-blowing emotional drama. Of course, it also helps that the cast is superlative across the board from start to finish, even if their characters don't get really interesting until the 90-minute mark.
The third act is so impossibly good that it's enough to warrant a recommendation, but definitely not for a first-run. Wait until a second-run or a rental, then give this movie a try and see if it's for you.