“THE FAULT IN OUR STARS” — 2 1/2 stars — Shailene Woodley, Willem Dafoe, Laura Dern, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff, Mike Birbiglia; PG-13 (thematic elements, some sexuality and brief strong language); in general release
The key to a good story is conflict, and an early lack of conflict undermines “The Fault in Our Stars,” a well-intended film about loving life while dealing with death.
Shailene Woodley plays Hazel, a teenager with stage-four terminal cancer. Because of this, she has to carry an oxygen tank to breathe. She also carries around a cynical outlook on life, which comes to the forefront when her mother (Laura Dern) persuades her to join a support group at a local Christian church.
Ansel Elgort plays Gus, also a teen dealing with cancer, but he's in recovery from a bout that took his right leg below the knee. Gus attends the same group, which is run by the kind of stereotypical clueless zealot that Hollywood loves to use as a cheap stand-in for Christianity. But I digress.
Gus meets Hazel and is smitten immediately.
The first half of the film, then, shares the linear story of their awkward courtship. Granted, both characters are dealing with different stages of cancer, but aside from a little hesitation on Hazel’s side and a little resistance from her father (Sam Trammell), the kids’ road to true love doesn’t hit much more than a speed bump or two.
Things don’t get interesting until the pair takes a trip to Amsterdam in search of Hazel’s favorite novelist, Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe). Van Houten wrote her favorite book, “An Imperial Affliction,” which perfectly captures the sense of dealing with death but has an ambiguous ending. Hazel is determined to get the author’s interpretation of his ending, but, unfortunately, Van Houten has become a recluse — because, like all writers, he’s deep and eccentric.
If you can stick with the movie to Amsterdam, “The Fault in Our Stars” shifts into a much more engaging narrative, because, well, things start happening. The problem is, once those things start happening, those things need to get resolved, and this leads to a bloated film. The problem may be that “The Fault in Our Stars” is based on a book by John Green; this certainly wouldn’t be the first time a strong literary narrative had troubles translating to the screen.
Still, “The Fault in Our Stars” has plenty of nice moments — the interaction between Woodley and Elgort can be very sweet at times, and wise attendees will want to bring tissues along with their popcorn — but the good bits are often offset by stumbles.
Woodley does a nice job as Hazel, echoing much of the same spunk she showed earlier this year in “Divergent.” Elgort also has his moments, though some of his quirks feel too forced. For example, Gus has a habit of keeping a cigarette in his mouth, not to smoke, but to keep death at bay. It may have worked in the book, but here it feels like a sneaky product placement.
Plus, while it isn’t explicit, there is enough sexual content in the film to justify a heads-up for more sensitive viewers. Dealing with cancer may have forced the characters to grow up early, but this is still a story about teenagers.
“The Fault in Our Stars” is rated PG-13 for vulgar dialogue and profanity (including a single instance of the F-word), sexual content and some medical-related gore.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at woundedmosquito.com.