There’s a scene towards the end of “The Fault in Our Stars” that confirms Shailene Woodley’s status as one of the most gifted actors currently working in mainstream American film. With aching tenderness, she delivers a heartrending monologue while staring into the eyes of her beloved. Her words are not only an affirmation of her love but a wrenching farewell, and Woodley makes every syllable ring true. A choir of sniffles accompanied this extraordinary scene at the packed screening I attended last Sunday, aside from the moment where Woodley pauses and holds up a finger, signaling that she needs a moment. The theater fell so silent that I could almost feel the people around me holding their collective breath. Woodley clearly held the audience in the palm of her hand.
And yet, as I left the theater alongside my fellow moviegoers, many of whom were dabbing their eyes or blowing their noses, I was consumed with a very different sort of sadness. To paraphrase Fred Mertz, “I was crying too, but for a different reason.” I simply couldn’t escape the tragically underwhelming fact that “The Fault in Our Stars” was not a good movie—at all—and no matter how much blood, sweat and tears Woodley put into each frame, a galaxy of faults conspired against her monumental efforts at every turn.
Why, for example, must the film be as poorly paced as “Divergent” (the subpar “Hunger Games” riff featuring Woodley earlier this year), reducing its characters’ lives to a series of manufactured set pieces, thus leaving little to no room for tangible character development? This flaw remains consistent in the vast majority of current Hollywood blockbusters, which are most successful when they center on superheroes who have no use for three dimensions. Yet for a supposedly intimate character drama like “Fault in Our Stars,” this approach is utterly fatal. I was reminded of the scene in “Divergent” where Woodley’s character is prevented from mourning the sudden death of her mother, thanks to an unending hail of bullets. “Stop! Stop!” Woodley cries out in defiance. She might as well be shouting at the studio executives who’d rather keep a plot moving forward than earn an audience’s investment.
That’s certainly true of “Fault in Our Stars” regarding its central relationship, which leads us to the primary dilemma in Woodley’s career: practically all of her leading male co-stars are glaringly out of her league. Take Ansel Elgort (no, seriously, take him. Please!). He enters the film with a cocky smirk on his face, and there the smirk remains for nearly the entire two-hour running time, except for those few jarring moments where he’s required to convey violent emotion, which are unconvincing in the extreme. His behavior is so over-the-top and inauthentic that it’s impossible to care about his ill-fated romance with Woodley from the get-go. It also doesn’t help that his character has been written to resemble the male equivalent of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. He falls in love with Woodley instantly, and turns out to be the perfect boyfriend in every respect, aside from his cancer diagnosis, which is treated much like the iceberg in “Titanic” (Elgort’s as angelic as DiCaprio and as likable as Billy Zane).
Rather than provide any depth of insight into the daily struggles of people with cancer, “Fault in Our Stars” is more interested in taking its characters on a picturesque tour of Amsterdam, a wholly idealized diversion that my girlfriend likened to the noodle bath Robin Williams gives an elderly patient in the equally wince-inducing “Patch Adams” (though even Patch would’ve squirmed during the make out session in Anne Frank’s attic, followed by that hideous slow clap). It’s all sunshine and daisies until Woodley and Elgort have their much-anticipated encounter with the most scenery-chewing of archetypal schmucks: the Idolized Adult Who Turns Out To Be A Disappointment. He’s played by Willem Dafoe with such unbridled cruelty that you’d swear he was being directed by Lars von Trier. His character’s nihilistic bile is at least a refreshing alternative to the film’s unrelenting supply of saccharine warmth, even if it ultimately proves to be no less phony.
Contrast this character with the deadbeat father played so brilliantly by Kyle Chandler in “The Spectacular Now,” James Ponsoldt’s sublime coming-of-age drama from last year that is as mature and insightful as “Fault in Our Stars” is juvenile and glib. In just a few scenes, Ponsoldt and Chandler give us a sense of who this man is, why he is the way he is, how he got to be that way and what he’ll potentially become. This is also a credit to the screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who also wrote the script for “Fault in Our Stars.” How could they manage to follow up one of the best films about budding adults with one of the worst? Why does every single person in “Spectacular Now” feel so richly layered and vividly realized while the ensemble in “Fault in Our Stars” resembles a musty bin of recycled tropes? Why bother hiring a towering talent like Laura Dern if you’re going to condense her character’s intriguing inner life into a single scene of exposition? I suspect no religious audience member is going to enjoy the scant “comic relief” delivered by Mike Birbiglia, criminally wasted as the Christian leader of a cancer support group, whose smarmy antics never rise above the level of a mean-spirited cheap shot.
The pairing of Woodley and Elgort, not to mention the pairing of Woodley and morose Ken doll Theo James in “Divergent,” looks all the more awkward when juxtaposed with Woodley and her sole triumphant leading man, Miles Teller, in “Spectacular Now,” who succeeds precisely because he’s out of her league. His character is an alcoholic dreamer who’s afraid of his future and the threat that he’ll follow in the failed footsteps of his old man. Woodley’s character may seem distressingly sweet on the page, but she is actually the most complex and satisfying role that the actress has so far received. Her character is smart and articulate, but not vessel for “Juno”-esque punchlines. She’s also naive and innocent in ways that many people her age undoubtedly are, and her first pangs of infatuation are relatable in their enthralling and often willfully blind nature. Yet it’s her emotional growth particularly in the film’s final frames that are most impressive of all, subverting the film’s “love story” formula into a far more provocative portrait of evolving lives, evoking the arrestingly unsentimental finale of Elia Kazan’s “Splendor in the Grass.”
Best of all, Teller is a huge talent who looks and acts like an actual person, not an airbrushed pretty boy. Too bad Woodley has somehow managed to form an entourage of male co-stars who follow her from picture to picture. Watching Teller play Woodley’s nemesis who kicks her unconscious in “Divergent” was so distracting that I quipped to my girlfriend, “The Spectacular Ow?” Casting Elgort as Woodley’s love interest after he had just played her brother in “Divergent” brings “Fault in Our Stars” some exceedingly unwelcome incestuous undercurrents. If these two botched blockbusters prove anything, it’s that Woodley is too good an actress to be matched with a slickly commercial mannequin. Her work demands to be paired with someone who can be just as authentic. Otherwise, she might as well be acting opposite Roger Rabbit. Okay? Okay.