The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

I suppose it would be really easy to write a review about how this flagrantly tearjerking melodrama of two teenagers falling in love while living with terminal cancer is the worst kind of emotional heartstring tugging, but that would probably be because I somewhat fell victim to it. It’s very hard not to, after all, given the premise, even without the little flourishes that are added to help you along the path. Those flourishes, thankfully, generally steer clear of big string-laden orchestration or gloopily grandstanding sentimental speeches from the parents (at least, as far as I recall).

What’s interesting is that the story is very much told from the point of view of the central character, Hazel (Shailene Woodley), and this — along with just basic business sense on the part of the filmmakers — perhaps accounts for some of the peculiarly airbrushed depictions of the dying kids and their love affair. They are the heroes of their world; their friend Isaac (Nat Wolff) is almost rock-star like in his blindness, looking for all the world like Ferris Bueller in his prime. It’s directed by the maker of the most comfortably middle-class film I saw last year (Stuck in Love.), so everything’s just-so here as well.

In fact, without Hazel’s ever-present breathing apparatus and a few scenes in hospitals, you’d be hard-pressed to spot that they were terminal, and that, presumably, is precisely the point: this is a teen love story, first and foremost, a film about living. When Hazel and the always goofily grinning and cheerfully upbeat Gus (Ansel Elgort) finally share a kiss, the bystanders applaud. They APPLAUD. I might add that this takes place in the most allegorically-loaded of locations, but then the film is at pains to create a world of metaphor and allusion. “It’s a metaphor” is practically the film’s motto, a refrain used to refer specifically to Gus’s habit of keeping an (unlit) cigarette in his mouth. And then there’s Hazel’s quest to find out what happens after the abrupt end of her favourite novel within the film (a novel about cancer, of course), that sends her to Amsterdam to track down its prickly and reclusive author, Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe).

We might wonder what happens to her and her family when this particular story ends, but as Hazel discovers, that would be a mistake. The only thing that matters is what happens during the story’s telling. The key, then, is just to go with it, and as such it helps that Woodley is such a watchable and radiant presence at the heart of things. Many of us may know what happens when this story ends; it’s not worth thinking about.

CREDITS
Director Josh Boone; Writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (based on the novel by John Green); Cinematographer Ben Richardson; Starring Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Laura Dern, Nat Wolff, Willem Defoe; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Friday 20 June 2014.

Stuck in Love. (2012)

God knows, there are probably a hundred reasons to dislike Stuck in Love. You could start, or perhaps you could end, with that full stop in the film’s title. It’s a film about writers, you see, the type of rarefied East Coast milieu you get in, say, Noah Baumbach films or in Wonder Boys (2000), also about a frustrated novelist. It focuses on a family of self-involved artistic types (Greg Kinnear is the father Bill, Nat Wolff and Lily Collins play his son Rusty and daughter Samantha), who are introduced in the first few minutes by having their opening lines written out on screen as they speak them, but each in a different typeface to indicate their generational and aspirational differences. But that full stop also indicates a sort of finality to the protagonist’s feelings that foreshadows the way the film concludes. If this kind of preciousness is already putting you off, the film may not appeal to you, but I found it sort of solipsistically charming.

The film’s opening lines are delivered by high school student Rusty, but when famous writer Bill later finds the same words in his son’s journal, he states confidently that they are words that hook in a reader and should be used to start a story; writer/director Josh Boone is clearly pleased with his script. In all honesty, I liked it too, but perhaps because it feels like a tale of romantic angst drawn from my generation. For example, the music the teenage characters all listen to and identify with is music that the same people would have been listening to in the late-90s (Elliott Smith, Bright Eyes). Boone is around my age, so this self-identification probably accounts for elements both of my enjoyment of the script and also my frustration with some of the plotting and the characters.

A lot of the character arcs are just too neat, for example. Cynical Samantha, embittered by her parents’ divorce and her mother (Jennifer Connelly) shacking up with a younger (less literate) guy, is at university, avoiding relationships and embarking on a series of one-night stands with similarly philistine jocks. She has just had her first, cynical novel published when she meets sweet-natured bassist Lou (played nicely by Logan Lerman), and has her cynicism challenged by his relationship with his dying mother, which opens up the possibility of a rapprochement with her own detested mother. Meanwhile, Rusty has been enjoined by his father to grasp life’s experiences while he can, and so hooks up with party girl Kate, a path which leads him back to the seclusion of his own fantastic imagination. Tastes in authors both high (John Cheever) and somewhat more pulpy (the son is fixated on Stephen King) converge as everyone comes to embrace the best in each other over a Thanksgiving meal. Et cetera, et cetera.

It is perhaps never quite so pat, but at times it does certainly verge on the unabashedly sentimental. However, the world weariness conveyed by Greg Kinnear (who even manages to make his stalking of his ex-wife seem sort of adorable in an infantile way), as well as the perky young actors, keep the film interesting. Best of the bunch for me are Nat Wolff as the introverted Rusty and Logan Lerman as soulful Lou, both essaying a sort of vulnerable perplexity, while Lily Collins as the sister is at least convincingly embittered.

It may not be a masterpiece, but I consistently enjoyed Stuck in Love. At its best it really has a handle on its characters and its milieu, however comfortably and at times off-puttingly self-congratulatory and middle-class it may be.


© Millennium Entertainment

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Josh Boone | Cinematographer Tim Orr | Starring Greg Kinnear, Nat Wolff, Logan Lerman, Lily Collins, Jennifer Connelly | Length 97 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Friday 14 June 2013

My Rating 2.5 stars likeable