Not that it matters what a middle-aged man thinks of The Fault in Our Stars, but I left the theater feeling strangled by heartstrings plucked far too vigorously. Sobbers in the crowd — and there were plenty, mostly young females — will disagree.
Josh Boone's adaptation of John Green's novel is a stealthless, full frontal assault on tear ducts, deploying every emotional weapon from a slow clap to not one but two eulogies for a friend — who's still alive to listen and group hug. It's a movie about dying teenagers, which is apparently the next big thing, judging from the buzz after a pre-show ad for an upcoming Fox TV series on the subject.
The Fault in Our Stars is shameless, old-fashioned to the brink of cliche, in the way it coaxes those tears. At the same time it poses as being cooler than that, with attractive teens wisecracking in the face of death, jetting overseas to ditch virginity and always, always knowing better than adults.
None more than Hazel Grace Lancaster, played by Shailene Woodley with emphasis on the middle name. Hazel's thyroid cancer spread to her lungs, forcing her to tote a portable oxygen tank like a Calvary cross. But she didn't lose her pithy sense of humor, which appeals to another member of her cancer support group.
His name is Augustus "Gus" Waters, played by a walking smile named Ansel Elgort. Gus has bone cancer that already cost him a leg but not a devil-may-care attitude that quickly charms Hazel. She loans him her favorite book, leading to this silver-lined movie's lone antagonism.
Willem Dafoe shows up as Peter Van Houten, an author self-exiled in Amsterdam, whose book An Imperial Affliction is a source of inspiration for Hazel and conversation with her for Gus. Peter encourages them to visit then turns out to be a raving, insufferable alcoholic.
The character is such a jarring intrusion on what has been a saccharine romance that the movie nearly goes off the rails. Tracing backward from the wistful finale, Peter and in fact the entire Amsterdam trip reveal only what the plot could find elsewhere and less strenuously sentimental. They don't need to tour Anne Frank's house for Hazel to get perilously winded while climbing stairs.
Sometimes Boone crams conflicting subtexts into the same frame; a foreground heart-to-heart talk while a background tantrum is tossed is a glaring example. One action distracts from the other in a visual medium, losing attention for both, while a book can shift attention back and forth with a simple indentation. What works on the page doesn't on the screen.
And sometimes those subtexts — like the couple's blind friend Isaac (Nat Wolff) — seem shoehorned into the narrative simply because they wouldn't merit attention on their own.
Only the gamest actors can make this material work, and Boone's cast comes mighty close. Woodley doesn't hurt her growing reputation as one of today's finest young actors, and Elgort is charismatic enough to become a pin-up crush. As Hazel's parents, Sam Trammell and especially Laura Dern make incredible support believable.
Honestly, I expected, even wanted to cry at The Fault in Our Stars, or at least choke up a little. Yet the transparent eagerness of this movie to break hearts, through means not entirely justifying that end, always pulled me back, as it did with Love Story 40 years ago. Not buying into a stacked emotional deck means never having to say you're sorry.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.