updated 06/06/2014 AT 1:00 PM ET
•originally published 06/06/2014 AT 2:15 PM ET
Based on John Green’s ginormously popular YA novel, this is a sweet, simple, dignified movie about young lovers whose every move is chaperoned by death.
It seems safe to say that it will have millions of people verklempt between now and forever.
When they meet in a cancer support group, Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) and Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) share a sense of gallows humor, but she considers her foreshortened life with pointed intensity, and he stays afloat (sometimes desperately) with gallant charm. Where they connect – and the pair do connect, wholly – is on a level of existential and romantic bliss.
The amazing thing is that the audience is transported there, too, for a time. And then …
It would be unfair to reveal more of the story than that, even if the book’s huge readership knows the outcome and will probably be wet-eyed even while ordering tickets on Fandango.
At any rate, fans will find little to complain about in this adaptation. (If they do, they’re silly.) Hazel’s voiceover narration in the movie doesn’t capture wholly the extremely precise tone of the book’s Hazel: A sort of calculated lack of affect combined with deadpan humor, somewhere between Holden Caulfield and Hemingway, and absolutely right for a teenager who has spent years living with her cancer. The early Scarlett Johannson, the one in Ghost World, would have been perfect.
But the 22-year-old Woodley is flawless: natural, grounded, smart, with alert eyes, just enough edge and a readiness to yield to happiness when it arrives in the form of Ansel Elgort (who’s 20). She is terrific.
Elgort’s performance is launched as a major charm offensive and, if it had been sustained at that level, would have been exhausting. But his boyish handsomeness doesn’t keep him from being awkward and vulnerable – from some angles, he suggests a more strapping Michael Cera – and the dominant element becomes a powerful tenderness.
Together, he and Woodley make one of the most believable couples to turn up on a movie screen in years.
In a scene that could have played very badly, they share their first kiss in Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam – and the tourists surrounding them, rather than thinking this is what you should expect of a nation that previously sent over Justin Bieber, burst into applause and shouts of “bravo.”
You agree with them: We’ve reached this moment watching Hazel lug her oxygen tank up flight after flight of narrow stairs as Augustus worries for her – and all the while we’re aware of Frank’s words about life and death and hope. It’s a validation, not a blasphemy. It’s Woodley and Ansort who make it so.
I do have several problems with the movie, but as soon as I propose them I will for the most part withdraw them.
1. The movie has been shot, on a modest reported budget of $12 million, with very little concrete detail of time and place – it doesn’t look much better than something you might watch on the CW.
But: This serves to keep the camera focused on Woodley and Elgort, and prevents their chemistry from being diluted.
2. Peter Van Houten (played by Willem Dafoe). The lovers visit Amsterdam on a pilgrimage to meet Peter Van Houten, the reclusive author of a book called An Imperial Affliction (the title is from an Emily Dickinson poem, “There’s a Certain Slant of Light”). Hazel is obsessed with this mysterious novel, which ends midsentence and has something to do with a dying girl and a hamster named Sisyphus. The book sounds ridiculous, even though it clearly isn’t meant to, and Van Houten turns out to be a mean, bitter drunk who practically throws the couple into the city’s canals. He and his novel never completely escape the feeling of having been planted in the narrative. Even the fine Dafoe, looking like playwright David Mamet in a peculiarly foul mood and spitting out his words as if he were grinding up shards of glass, can’t make him quite real.
But: Without Van Houten, we would not have that kiss in Anne Frank’s house. It may just be that he’s in that club of characters – Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, even the Wizard of Oz – who confront young people with the terrifying presence of blighted adulthood. And yet they allow those stories’ heroes to move on, almost magically, to a new wonderment.
And that’s what happens to Hazel and Augustus. No wonder everyone falls in love with them as they fall in love.
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