The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
William Shakespeare (as spoken by Cassius in Julius Caesar)
Based on John Green’s best-selling novel of the same name, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS tells the story of two exceptional and highly articulate teenagers, Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters, who are dealing with life and death in the aftermath of their respective diseases — hers, Stage 4 thyroid cancer that has left her lungs so damaged that she has to be tethered to an oxygen tank 24/7, and his, bone cancer that took away one of his legs. Like Cassius and Brutus in Julius Caesar, Hazel and Augustus (whose name may be a nod to Caesar) have different views of the future and they try to persuade each other that their vision is the correct one. For Augustus, he sees death as oblivion. He will be forgotten in a flash and life will go on just fine without him. To cope, he gives Death the finger by sticking an unlit cigarette in his mouth. For Hazel, she sees herself as a time bomb that will ultimately destroy everything and everyone around her. Her coping mechanism is to try to be as normal a teenager as possible but not to let anyone get close to her. When they meet at a cancer survivors’ support group, they discover that they can do — and can be — even more than they had previously thought or wanted.
THE FAULT IN OUR STARS is this generation’s LOVE STORY, though far superior to its predecessor. Both films are highly manipulative (in other words, have a box of tissues very near), but FAULT’S two main actors, Shailene Woodley (THE SPECTACULAR NOW) and Ansel Elgort (DIVERGENT, which also stars Woodley) elevate the film from the realm of pure schmaltz (which LOVE STORY is) by bringing tremendous honesty and realism to their characters. One gets the sense that they hadn’t just memorised the words in the script, they owned the words. In LOVE STORY, Ryan O’Neal owned Oliver’s words but the same cannot be said of Ali MacGraw with her character, Jenny. (I recently watched that film again to refresh my memory for writing this review. I can’t believe how wooden MacGraw was in that film. I was a horny pre-teen back then and I was in love with her, so what did I know?)
Unlike Oliver and Jenny, Hazel and Augustus are very savvy about their diseases, which may either be due to the type of people they are or perhaps it is related to how we as a society relate to cancer these days. At the support group they attend, they and their fellow survivors rattle off their prognoses with complete facility. Compare that to Jenny’s situation in LOVE STORY. We don’t know her cancer’s name and I’m guessing she doesn’t know it either. And that whole business where the doctor tells Oliver that Jenny is ill before he tells Jenny would never fly today. That plays into Jenny as a tragic character, though. When her time comes, she simply fades away, Madonna-like (not the singer but the original one), in her hospital bed. Hazel and Augustus, on the other hand, are never stoic; never tragic. They are too in touch with their emotions to let that happen to them.
FAULT’s screenplay was adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber, who also penned THE SPECTACULAR NOW. They give the film an indie feel, which serves both the subject matter and the actors well. As much as I enjoyed the film (perhaps “appreciated” may be the correct word to use here), all is not perfect and there were a few things that irked me. The first was Hazel and Gus’ very public kiss inside the Anne Frank House, which the other visitors to the museum watched and clapped. Had I been there, I would have told the kids to take it outside. Making out at a memorial to a dead girl doesn’t seem very appropriate. The other was the sappy teen music that pervaded the film. One song, okay. Two, maybe. It was, no doubt, meant to lighten the mood until the next round of tears came along but by the third song it was cloying. (I could also take issue with Francis Lai’s Oscar® winning score in LOVE STORY, which was just variations on a theme.)
All in all, though, FAULT is a well-made film and will probably stand up to time which, unfortunately, LOVE STORY does not. Woodley, once again, delivers a top-notch performance, which is why she is on my list of Actors to Watch. Elgort, for his part, has wonderful screen presence much like Ryan O’Neal had back in the day. I may have to add him to my list too. Laura Dern, too, hits the mark as Hazel’s mother, Frannie. Here is a character who probably hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep since her daughter was first diagnosed, yet she is upbeat and determined to try to give her daughter as normal a life as possible. There’s a poignant scene where Frannie reveals to Hazel her plans to “move on” (so to speak) once Hazel passes away. I can’t imagine Oliver or Phil (Jenny’s father) having the same conversation with Jenny.
If you haven’t seen LOVE STORY before or if you haven’t seen it in 44 years, I would tell you to watch it (again). I think, like me, you’ll be wondering what all the fuss what about. As for THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, you should definitely see that film if you haven’t done so already. Get the Kleenex ready though.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 33:35.)