Movie Review: ‘Fault in Our Stars’ a successful book adaptation

I’ve sat with a lot of tearful movie crowds, but I never heard legitimate honking till “The Fault in Our Stars” last Friday: Sobs, tissues, stormy nose-blowing – and occasional jostling as girl-groups wondered who was crying hardest.

I can’t speak for the other guys in the theater (just three of us in a sizable crowd!); but despite the emotional juggernaut of John Green’s story about teen cancer victims who fall in love, I teared up over the joyful scenes, not the devastations of terminal illness.

I suspect this hopeful vision is key to the popularity of Green’s 2012 bestseller; the movie does an excellent job with that aspect of the story – and most others.

Its major coup was snagging Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort as Hazel and Gus, who meet at a cancer support group and bond almost instantly, though Hazel’s more acute illness makes her, as she puts it, “a grenade” – bound to injure those closest to her.

As usual, Woodley is spectacular – especially in her last few scenes (the one with her parents in the bedroom is amazing); and Elgort’s Gus, though a bit too slick for his age, is an irresistible force of nature in his frank and relentless love for Hazel.

Laura Dern has several strong moments as Hazel’s mom, and Willem Dafoe does the film’s finest work as a reclusive author whom Hazel and Gus visit in Amsterdam, despite their illness.

The beauty of this European city, the joy of the couple’s time there and some touching quotes from Anne Frank (whose preserved Dutch house is toured by Gus and Hazel) advance Green’s view that one must seize whatever happiness one finds in a world of unexplained suffering – a world where love is just “a shout into the void.”

Much of the religion-bashing that accompanies this worldview feels cheap (especially near the beginning), yet one can understand the appeal of Green’s approach for those doubtful about life after death.

But one major flaw here is an almost total lack of subtlety and nuance. I suppose this comes with the subject matter, but a story that wears a throbbing heart on its sleeve for nearly two hours becomes a grind; to me, the final scenes felt intolerably leaden, even though a lot was happening.

“The Fault in Our Stars” insists that it won’t “sugar-coat” grief like other films, where every problem can be “fixed with a Peter Gabriel song” – but this also feels like a cheap shot.

I can’t really think of too many movies that sugar-coat terminal illness – can you? And it’s a little disingenuous to demean Gabriel (admittedly one of my musical heroes) in a film whose own soundtrack uses 21 contemporary tunes.

But none of these faults will prevent the powerful “Fault” from pleasing its enthusiastic target audience – namely, folks who loved the book.

Green reportedly likes this film, and his fans will too.

3 stars out of 4.

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some sexuality and brief strong language.