Well, Brutus, Is It the Stars or Us?
Review by Ken Burke The Fault in Our Stars
Based on a very popular young-adult novel this story concerns 2 teenagers with life-threatening cancer who are determined to share their love even if just for a short time.
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Erich Segal’s hugely-best-selling Love Story (most successful book of 1970, cheesily-released on Valentine’s Day that year), opens with the lines: “What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died? That she was beautiful and brilliant? That she loved Mozart and Bach, the Beatles, and me?” (Surprisingly—just kidding—this isn’t included among one Web-based opinion on the 100 Best First Lines from Novels, but, after all, it is hard to compete with “Call me Ishmael” [Moby-Dick, Herman Melville, 1851].) This is spoken by young Harvard-educated-lawyer Oliver Barrett IV—potentially-rich from his businessman-father’s success within the line of solid-family-tradition—in memory of his young wife, Jenny, who’s dead from leukemia after they’ve managed to briefly merge their upper-crust and working-class backgrounds (with no help from Barrett III until he softens upon learning of Jenny’s demise). Ironically, this story started as a movie script for Paramount’s upcoming-intended-blockbuster (directed by Arthur Hiller, starring Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw, released in December 1970 in time for box-office-and-awards-consideration-seasons—reasonably successful with the latter, winning 1 Oscar [Best Music, Original Score] from 7 nominations along with 5 Golden Globe wins [including Best Picture-Drama] of 7 noms, mightily successful with the former in its own era entering the upper ranks of the All-Time Domestic Box-Office champs at #6 based on actual grosses [it’s been far-surpassed now in our inflationary-age, down to #514], although still high on the inflation-adjusted-list at #35), but was quickly put into novelization form to build an audience for the movie. Although roundly jeered by many critics (Also marvelously satirized in the madcap romantic comedy What’s Up, Doc? [Peter Bogdanovich, 1972] when Barbra Streisand’s Judy offers the famous “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” line to O’Neal’s Howard, batting her eyelashes in the process, to which he replies, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”) during its initial run, it was obviously a big hit with audiences, widely embraced by my teenage/young-adult Boomer generation despite its overt sappiness because it offered such a dreamily-romantic-story of young lovers struggling, then stabilizing financially on their own at a time when so many of us were trying to push away from our parents as the culture gap widened, plus it gave us a throwback-message of love triumphing over all other ills, even as it acknowledged tragedy in the world, a storyline that resonated during that tumultuous Vietnam War-Civil Rights era, no matter how naïve and silly it may seem in retrospect. I’ve long been cynical about such sap (breaking up with your first few girl/boyfriends—as the case may be—can do that to you), but I have to admit I choked up noticeably when Jenny expired, much more so than I did when my first wife died from breast cancer in 1985 (although in some defense of my seemingly-cringe-worthy-self, we met and married in 1971 at age 23 [not recommended, at least in our case], we divorced 4 years later when she wandered off with another guy [who was also married, with a young child at the time], then she died 10 years after at a point when we had had no contact for quite some time; that still may not justify me at a much younger age grieving a bit more over MacGraw’s fictional demise, but if it helps my case at all I did feel mad at myself almost immediately after seeing Love Story in 1970 for being taken in so completely by such an intentionally-manipulative movie—and introspective later when I realized how disconnected I’d become from my ex, even though she’s the one who chose to leave me).
I’ve gone into such detail about Love Story, a film that’s not even the subject of this review, because it’s relevant (at least to me) regarding the state of mind of a critic attempting to address a cinematic experience in a situation where subjectivity, age, and subject-matter-interest all come into play, even though most of my analytical/evaluative brethren would have you believe that all of their pronouncements speak truth to the masses from an informed, objective perspective. In real truth, all of my review comments (and theirs too, if they’d admit it) from the start of this blog in December 2011 represent nothing more than my subjective opinion of what I’ve seen on screen (although my graduate studies in film and other forms of mass media plus dozens of years of teaching about such hopefully have given me some insights on the subject that many casual moviegoers may not have cultivated yet, but it still comes down to the old saying [slightly sanitized for the benefit of the more-easily-offended], “Opinions are like armpits: Everybody got one”), but in the case of last weekend’s runaway ticket-sales-champion, The Fault in Our Stars (Josh Boone, based on John Green’s 2012 novel), I’ve really had to wrestle with my own idiosyncratic reactions to come to any terms with this movie that belong in a reasonably-considered, seriously-intended, semi-professional (in that I’m still gaining nothing remunerative from writing this stuff week after week—except the pleasure of sharing these thoughts with each one of you, of course!) critical review, which may end up this time being more of a ruminating essay than a properly-deconstructive-analysis, but you could probably say that about anything that I’ve posted so far at this Two Guys in the Dark venue (where I’m still the only guy writing and likely will remain that way, given that Pat Craig’s decided to move out of California so no matter how good his reviewing intentions are his time will surely be consumed elsewhere). So, with all of that soul-wrestling in place (I tried using the Undertaker’s Tombstone Pile Driver on my conflicted emotions but they just kicked out of the pin—like body-and-brain-muscle-bound-bully Brock Lesnar did at WrestleMania XXX [I think they stopped using Roman numerals on the WWE website when they realized their audience couldn’t figure out how to calculate them but other press sources still count in that very-old-fashioned-way] last April 6 at the New Orleans Superdome, thereby breaking ‘Taker’s 21-0 streak of wins for the event and convincing me to stop wasting money on such losing causes as satisfactory WWE storylines and winning lottery tickets—although when the jackpot gets over $200 million those tickets are still mighty tempting), I really have to ask myself: Am I sincerely moved by what I observed about these star-crossed-kids in The Fault in Our Stars or have I just been manipulated again 40+ years later by another bunch of calculated-tear-jerker-strategies that suck me in with the "trailer-made"-story of a 16-year-old-girl facing her far-too-early-end only to be caught off-guard when it’s her supposedly-in-remission-18-year-old-boyfriend who’s the one actually buried before the final credits roll? Oh, did you not read the blatant Spoiler Alert at the beginning of this posting? Well, if not, maybe you’ll believe me in the future—if you ever read another thing I write for the rest of your life. So, for the 6 or 7 of you (at best, probably) who are still with me at this point, let’s move on to some specifics of the sadly-sweet/callously-calculated (you pick one; I’m still working on it) story under our current consideration.
In brief (as best I understand what that strange word means), the situation is that young Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is stable now from the thyroid cancer that spread to her lungs but she has to use a portable oxygen tank to breathe properly. Her far-too-upbeat mother, Frannie (Laura Dern), keeps pushing her off to group therapy at their Episcopal church where another über-optimistic-smiler just keeps pumpin’ out the slogans along with the songs while Hazel quietly prides herself on being the “Keith Richards of cancer kids,” even casually telling Mom that if she really wants her reclusive daughter to act like a real teenager she should be getting her a fake ID rather than hits of Jesus-joy (Frannie’s so constantly-supportive that she just takes this in stride as a joke with nary a nod to the reality that there’s probably some truth behind it, that is if Hazel weren’t so constantly-cooperative in her virginal isolation; Dad Michael [Sam Trammell] is equally there for his daughter, yet less verbal about anything, but over the course of the story we don’t really see much of him anyway). Hazel’s virginity stays put but at least finally meets a challenge one day when 18-year-old-“Lost-my-lower-right-leg-but-I’m-in-remission-and-on-top-of-the-world” Augustus—his family prefers to call him Gus—Waters (Ansel Elgort, who also played Woodley’s brother in this spring’s smells-like-The-Hunger-Games-fight-for-survival-in-the-future-franchise Divergent [Neil Burger], based on another very popular 2011 young-adult-oriented-novel, this one by Veronica Roth) shows up at group in support of his friend, Isaac (Nat Wolff), who’s lost an eye already and soon will sacrifice the other in an upcoming-necessary-operation (although Isaac’s got a constantly-attached-girlfriend, Monica [Emily Peachey], so he seems to need little additional encouragement). Gus immediately attaches himself to Hazel Grace (as he often calls her), refusing to be rebuffed by her attempts to spare him anguish when she feels her death is inevitable. His efforts are finally successful when through his charm (he’s loaded with it, on top of supreme self-confidence tempered only by the realities that he’s a terrible driver and terrified when he takes his first plane ride) with the Genies Foundation (essentially, Make-A-Wish) and help from Hazel’s family (plus unlikely good-hearted-doctors who finally support the trip rather than protecting her health by not allowing her to take what could easily be a dangerous chance) he uses his long-delayed-wish for her benefit, to fly to Amsterdam so she can meet her dream author, Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe), whose novel, An Inspired Affliction, fires Hazel’s imagination both because it’s about a girl with cancer whom she relates to and it just abruptly stops in mid-sentence, offering no closure at all. By the time the 2 of them, along with Frannie (Dad doesn’t make the trip; if it were just the film script I’d assume it’s to get more screen time for Dern, although apparently he doesn’t go in the book either, I assume because of travel costs), cross the Atlantic romance has definitely bloomed beyond Hazel’s insistence on friends-only-status, capped off by dinner in a lovely restaurant for the young lovers (but even here we get a touch of irony, as Augustus wears his best suit, the one reserved for his funeral) paid for by Van Houten, who agreed to allow them to visit him after some prodding by the ever-effusive Gus. Upon meeting him, however, they are horribly disappointed because he’s alternately ambiguous, hostile, insulting, and not interested at all in Hazel’s devotion to his book, especially when there’s Scotch to be consumed no matter what time of day it is (we find out at this point that the invitation to visit and the dinner payment were the work of his Dutch assistant, Lidewij [Lotte Verbeek], who’d hoped that their visit might shake Peter out of his drunken doldrums but is horrified at his reaction to the teens, especially when they've had enough and just leave).
Lidewij catches up with Hazel and Gus as they leave the author’s home in disgust; she takes them to the Anne Frank house for a visit, at which point I really start feeling queasy about manipulation, as much as I admire Ms. Frank and her travails (I’ve visited the house myself; it’s a powerfully sobering experience, especially paired with a later trip to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp/ memorial museum in Poland, where Anne spent some time before dying at Bergen-Belsen in 1945), because the juxtaposition of voice-over-narration of her words about “Where there is hope there is life” with Hazel determinately dragging her oxygen tank up the several flights of stairs into the hidden rooms, then kissing Augustus to the applause of their fellow visitors, just hit me as simultaneously inspiring and maudlin, so I’m still struggling with whether I’m just getting too old and cynical (just as Hazel begins as equally cynical although immensely younger than me) to fully appreciate the tender messages being offered here or whether I can spot an overdone metaphor from a mile away, refusing to take the tear-stained-bait. Things go simultaneously downhill and uphill from there, as first Augustus reveals that tumors have returned in a vicious manner all over his body so that his time is surely short just as Hazel steels herself to support him to the end, even agreeing to join with Isaac in delivering a joint eulogy at his inevitable funeral (they also join in to throw eggs at Monica’s car because she had the nerve to break up with Isaac rather than stay with him through his blindness; in another stretch of the imagination, Monica’s mother [Emily Bach] listens to their story and simply goes back inside her home, seemingly in agreement that her daughter deserves some retaliation). Despite their enduring love, Hazel and Augustus do have a difference of opinion over his desire to not fall into “oblivion,” to accomplish something substantial that others will remember him by (although what that is isn’t clear to him or us, except for a half-baked-idea to write a sequel to An Imperial Affliction, but even that is more for Hazel’s benefit than his) vs. her argument that she’ll remember him vividly so what else does he need but that? Finally, the end comes for Augustus, but at the funeral Van Houton shows up as a promise to Gus (they’d remained in email correspondence) although Hazel wants nothing to do with him, even when she learns that the author’s despondence is the result of his own young child dying from cancer years earlier. Later, as she talks with Isaac we have the last of the improbable events in this story as Hazel finds out that the letter from Van Houten she crumpled up in her car was actually a message to him from Augustus in which he was hoping the author could help him state more eloquently his attempt at a eulogy for Hazel but Van Houton simply brought back the original, feeling that Gus had already made the best expression of his thoughts even if not in fully polished prose (I should only be so fortunate). We close with an overhead closeup of Hazel alone reading Gus’ words, deeply moved by them, signing off with their agreed-upon-connection-word, “Okay,” even as I still contemplate whether this was all OK for me or not. Certainly the superb acting by Woodley is a delight to watch (and I guess in future years we’ll see how she fares against Jennifer Lawrence as their respective-futuristic-franchises compete for audience attention—although The Hunger Games has a significant box-office-advantage at this point but based on 2 episodes with 2 to go while Divergent will use 3 more to finish up its elongated-narrative), just as the opportunity for disease-disadvantaged-kids to see people they can relate to on screen refusing to be pathetic victims of their circumstances must surely be inspiring (or so I imagine, having never been in nor close to such situations) … but yet … (to steal a trick from Van Houten, but I’ll finish below).
It works for me that Hazel is deeply troubled by her circumstances, that she wants to keep everyone at arm’s length both for their protection when she’s gone (if she’s gone; once the focus about imminent death falls on Augustus we don’t hear much about her condition except that the experimental drug she’s on still hasn’t turned against her body as with so many others using this attempted tumor-blocker, even if it doesn’t necessarily promise a cure), and that she finally explodes at her constant-pep-talk-mother, both for pushing the “If’ rather than the “when” scenario and for assuming that her mother will not be able to absorb the loss of Hazel, thereby increasing her guilt even over something that she’s not responsible for. Yet, I just feel that Hazel and Augustus are too mature for their ages, that such insights as they offer into the ultimate conditions of human beings are too sophisticated for their limited lives—although he was a basketball star before his problems arose (which opens up the option for a funny but odd scene where Augustus encourages Isaac to smash some of his trophies to get out his anger over Monica, meanwhile Hazel and Gus are calmly discussing possibilities regarding An Imperial Affliction) but he’s still a virgin too, so when he and Hazel slip off to his hotel room in Amsterdam one afternoon we end up with a Romeo and Juliet moment where they get to have sex just once before the dreaded demise (a scene that addresses reality better than many in this film for me in that despite her desire to put aside the oxygen tank Hazel can’t breathe without it so they must work around its clumsy presence but their willingness to do so is quite touching). The film is a marvelous moment for the characters and their loyal fans of page and/or screen, but, again, it just feels so carefully calculated for these teenage lives to fall into place as they must before the final curtain of death with attitudes and actions that to me would have been much more likely in their later 20’s except for the initial target audience being a younger demographic of readers (and successfully so, implying to me that unlike my Love Story-sentimental-self of yore I’m just not the right audience for this story at this time, an existential reality that certainly has relevance in any form of arts criticism whether we critics want to admit it or not—or maybe I’m just not able to understand that today’s teens can be so thoughtful, that the inflated notions my friends and I had of ourselves back in the 1960s shouldn’t be used against contemporary kids who may have been forced to mature faster than we did simply because the world they live in is so much more difficult than what we thought we knew). This movie’s title comes from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, where nobleman Cassius says to his friend, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings” (Act I, scene II, lines 140-141), implying that the turmoil about to occur over Caesar’s impending ascension to Emperor is not the fault of fate but instead human weakness and confusion; in The Fault in Our Stars I take the title to mean the opposite, that fate has decreed a tragic life for these cancer-stricken-kids, which forces them to respond as best they can even if their time on Earth has not fully prepared them for the challenges they face (although you’d be hard-pressed at times to believe that Hazel or Augustus [another possible Caesar reference, regarding the nephew who eventually took the lofty status denied to his uncle after bitter warfare, but seemingly an opposite situation from the buoyant-but-doomed Augustus in our story] are anything but well-traveled old souls forced to face a short life this go-round on Earth as they continue their evolution into the lofty realms of bodhisattva-status).
When I put all of this together, I find that The Fault in Our Stars is very intriguing with some real opportunity for substance, but I’m just not fully convinced that it achieves all that it sets out to do. However, it does help me contemplate the better aspects and choices in life, leading me to settle up my sexagenarian-ramblings with another Musical Metaphor from Joni Mitchell (she also felt like the right choice in my previous review, with my use of “The Circle Game” to accompany comments on Edge of Tomorrow [Doug Liman] in our June 11, 2014 posting), her haunting “For Free” (from the 1970 album Ladies of the Canyon), performed here at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HmzN1p 5q, from a 1970 appearance on the BBC as she tells of the contrast between the singer—adored by the public but caught up in her materialistic life of sophisticated success—and a street musician simply giving away beautiful tunes on a clarinet for no other reason than living in the moment, loving the art for its own sake rather than for any level of profit. I'm more attached to both the concept of this song and Mitchell's marvelous rendition of it than I am to The Fault in Our Stars, but maybe that's been my world-weary-fault all along; I'll leave the final ruminations—and maybe decisions—to your experience and sensitivities. Obviously, I found much more with this film than I anticipated (as my new short-review-intentions were quickly left behind), my feelings about it still in progress; I'm curious to know what any of you might have to say about your encounter with The Fault in Our Stars if you'd like to share any thoughts, no matter their direction.
If you’d like to know about The Fault in Our Stars here are some suggested links:
http://thefaultinourstarsmovie.com/ (you can even submit Fan Art if you like)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X_wY6KMaSsw (12:46 interview with actors Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort by TV reporter Chris Van Vliet after a premiere of the movie in Cleveland, answering a wide variety of sometimes-weird questions in a very open, upbeat manner)
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P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.