No 'Fault' in Woodley's performance

ASSOCIATED PRESS Ansel Elgort (from left), Nat Wolff and Shailene Woodley share cancer - and laughter - in common.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Ansel Elgort (from left), Nat Wolff and Shailene Woodley share cancer - and laughter - in common.
Posted: June 06, 2014

IN JOHN Green's young-adult novel The Fault in Our Stars, a cancer-stricken heroine challenges her in-remission boyfriend's ideas about a life well-lived.

She questions his "obsession with, like, dying for something or leaving behind some great sign of your heroism or whatever."

Or whatever.

It must have bugged J.D. Salinger in his final years to know that "whatever," the most Holden Caulfield-ish phrase in the English language, was not invented by teens until decades after Catcher in the Rye was published.

Green, a big Salinger fan, takes full advantage of the phrase in "The Fault in Our Stars," in a way that Salinger would have probably liked.

Certainly Salinger would have been relieved to know that Green understood Catcher in the Rye as a novel about grief, that Caulfield's famous disaffection stems from the (often curiously overlooked) fact that he's not able to deal with the death, by leukemia, of his brother.

Green makes sure there's no mistaking the subject of Fault in Our Stars, the story of terminal cancer sufferer Hazel (Shailene Woodley) and her love affair with Augustus (Ansel Elgort), a cancer survivor she meets in group therapy.

Josh Boone's adaptation steps in goo from time to time, but understands crucial aspects of Green's bestseller (the author supervised the screenplay, but gets no writing credit) - its mission to be honest about death, the way it leavens that honesty with mordant humor, and of course the way its story bows to the reality of merciless disease.

Boone's smartest decisions, though, involve casting. Woodley wins you over right away - in the opening group-therapy scenes (led by an amusing Mike Birbiglia), you watch her register beguiled astonishment at the infatuated attention of handsome stranger Augustus, new to the group. Woodley's gestures show Hazel The Cancer Patient suddenly remembering that underneath her nasal tube she's a young woman. Remembering, in a way, that she's still fully alive. (And by the way, what a rare feat of anti-vanity for Woodley to play this character behind a plastic tube throughout).

Later, in Hazel's big living-eulogy scene, Woodley stands up to her slow zoom with aplomb, and pulls the movie back from sentimentality.

Elgort, as Augustus, has fewer notes to play, but his bluff charm never comes off as forced, and his chemistry with Woodley is ideal.

He gets his character's old-fashioned gallantry, expressed in the way he facilitates Hazel's wish to visit Amsterdam, where she meets the man (Willem Dafoe) who wrote the novel that's sustained her.

Here again we see echoes of Catcher in the Rye. Holden's fantasy about a mind-meld with a beloved author morphs into something ghastly, but narratively important - the scenes relocate the movie on the doorstep of implacable death.

It's right about here that the movie loses its nerve. Ideas in the book about humor and fortitude wilting in the face of physical decline are left - perhaps understandably - underdeveloped. "Fault" instead settles for slick montage and song selections from an intrusive, on-sale-now soundtrack, and the movie starts to feel like the pop weeper it wants to transcend.

The book and the movie are different experiences. The screenplay pares down Green's literary allusions, the specifics of the metaphysical/philosophical ideas that Augustus and Hazel use to make sense of their precarious position in the world.

But again, "Fault" gets some essential things right. The touching way Hazel learns to view her experience through the eyes of her parents - an improvement on Salinger's revered teen text, if that's not sacrilegious to say.

Hazel takes a mighty step outside herself, and acquires the moral imagination to consider the lives of others. To love.

As Hazel puts it: "This cancer-ruined thing I'd spent years dragging around suddenly seemed worth the struggle."

Or whatever.


Blog: philly.com/KeepItReel

Online: ph.ly/Movies

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