Since when has crying at the movies become a competition?
There they were, the target audience for The Fault in Our Stars, trying to one-up each other in the not-so-dignified weeping department. As they sat at an advanced screening and witnessed in rapt surrender the aggressively wistful tale of two cancer-stricken teens in love, these teenyboppers didn’t just sniffle, allowing their tears to roll down their cheeks. Oh no, readers, these teen-lit fans sobbed, loudly and uncontrollably.
Astonished laughter at the magnitude of these howls of sorrow briefly made its way into this heartache cacophony, but overall, this Greek chorus of tears played in uncanny synchronicity with the voiceover narration that peppers this long-anticipated adaptation of John Green’s drippy tome of angst, growing pains and photogenic brushes with the Grim Reaper.
You better get used to the sound of star Shailene Woodley’s voice. The Oscar nominee plays 16-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster, living with thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs and just carrying on with her feet firmly planted on the ground. Oh yeah, she also has to lug around an oxygen tank, her source of subsistence and cross to bear all rolled up into one metaphorical package. You would think Hazel’s weathered pessimism would be just what the material needs to prevent it from wallowing in pathos, but screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber lay on the cynical one-liners so thick that they make it more difficult to lose oneself in their protagonist’s litany of hospital visits and overly cheery church support group sessions, the latter of which is a stipulation from Mom (Laura Dern) and Dad (True Blood‘s Sam Trammell)
And then, Hazel quite literally stumbles onto Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), 18, cocky, overconfident and very charismatic. It’s the sort of “meet cute” that only happens in romantic comedies and Nicholas Sparks adaptations, but their first tête–à–tête, at one of the aforementioned I’m-with-cancer-and-that’s-OK get-togethers, is a meeting of minds, a promising back-and-forth between Gus’ idealism and Hazel’s deal-with-it realism. The attractive teens with contrasting worldviews and, in Gus’ case, a prosthetic leg, click, and gradually, despite the flowery dialogue and shoddily executed forays into goofy humor, I started to feel something for these two. Like, for instance, the urge to throw out most of Hazel’s running commentary and have these two bright kids just get to know each other. At its best, The Fault in Our Stars lays off the first-person remarks long enough to let this romance blossom.
Director Josh Boone is so hellbent on delivering a slavishly faithful movie version of a beloved text – “Please like me,” the film seems to be saying at every turn – that it becomes difficult for the finished product to develop an identity apart from its revered source material. Gus and Hazel – actually, no; it’s Hazel Grace, never just Hazel to him – bond over An Imperial Affliction, a novel about a leukemia-stricken girl that, Hazel argues, captures what it feels like to live with the Big C. The book-within-the-book, a figment of Green’s overeager imagination, ends in mid-sentence, which sends the budding lovebirds on a quest to contact the author, now living in Amsterdam.
It would be unfair to viewers unfamiliar with the book to reveal what happens next, but let’s just say a change of scenery proves beneficial, both for the characters and the movie. In the film’s most effective sequence, Hazel takes on her fear of mortality and defies it with heart-rending abandon. (Guess what: No intrusive voiceover here to ruin things.) Alas, all good things come to an end in The Fault in Our Stars, and the film’s final 20 minutes – at 125 minutes, this movie’s at least 10 minutes too long – vividly place viewers into a place of real emotional pain. The physical decay is kept to a minimum, which, admittedly is a bit of a cop-out, but it’s admirable for Boone and his creative team to explore suffering to a larger extent than we’re used to in this genre. There’s no denying The Fault in Our Stars is trying too hard to poke our lacrimal glands, but I’ll give this uneven love story this much: Most of those tears are fully earned, even when they trigger excessive displays of teenage blubbering in darkened auditoriums.
Many of the moviegoers who will likely flock to theaters to make ushers mop the floors after each showing of The Fault in Our Stars were probably among the millions who turned Disney’s Maleficent into a runaway hit, a comeback of sorts for Angelina Jolie, who hadn’t headlined a major studio release since bombing big-time with The Tourist opposite Johnny Depp in 2010. I’m glad La Jolie has scored a box office success, and as the iconic antagonist of the Mouse House’s 1959 rendering of Sleeping Beauty, she couldn’t be more perfectly cast in a project that, on paper, sounds like a slam dunk. The pitch: What if we were to do with the tale of Princess Aurora (a radiant Elle Fanning in this new incarnation) what author Gregory Maguire did with characters from The Wizard of Oz in his novel – and subsequent Broadway musical – Wicked?
Here’s the thing about taking on such a challenge: In order to turn a baddie we love to hate into a sympathetic figure, you have to flesh out her pathology, truly explore what made her into the embodiment of pure evil. In Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent, elegant and cunning, called herself “the mistress of all evil.” (From this point on, readers, I have to indulge in some SPOILERS, so proceed with caution.) Taking some visual cues from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Japanese auteur Hayao Miyazaki’s animated features and Avatar, director Robert Stromberg, a visual effects and art direction veteran, provides a half-assed Psych 101 motive for Maleficent’s actions: a heart broken by betrayal.
Mallie, you see, is a fairy who helps maintain the balance in her realm of derivative pixies and trolls. As a girl, she meets Stefan, a poor boy who dreams of becoming the very royalty that has oppressed him and his family. Maleficent, horned and dark-winged, lets down her guard and falls in love, though you wouldn’t really know it from the way the film rushes past those sequences. By the time a grown-up Stefan drugs the lovestruck Maleficent and cuts off her wings, I was suffering from narrative whiplash, and was also more than a tad turned off about the icky parallels between Stefan’s actions and those of a rapist.
Consequently, the scene where Maleficent curses a newborn Aurora, the moment in which Jolie finally gets to be dastardly, feels like a cog in the movie’s creaky plot. In addition, and this is a crucial change, she sentences the princess to “a death-like sleep” on her 16th birthday, a downgrade from the original’s actual death sentence, which Merryweather, one of the three good fairies, reduced to an eternal slumber. Even when she’s supposed to be merciless, screenwriter Linda Woolverton dictates a limit on how monstrous Maleficent can be. From that point on, with the help of a magically shape-shifting crow (Sam Riley), this not-so-evil evildoer is reduced to babysitting duties, as she supervises Aurora, first from afar, and then, I kid you not, bonding with the child to the point the girl calls her “fairy godmother.”
The film has shifted villainous roles from Maleficent to Stefan, and if these “misunderstood monster” shenanigans ring a bell, a stale climax atop a castle tower pretty much confirm Woolverton is recycling her (far superior) Beauty and the Beast screenplay, and doing a pretty lame job of it. This isn’t the empowered, three-dimensional anti-hero the filmmakers would have us believe. Maleficent‘s Maleficent is a neutered creature. It wasn’t just her wings that got clipped. It’s her dark spirit that’s so conspicuously missing from this uninspired revisionist yarn.
Maleficent continues its feeble attempts to cast a spell in wide release. See it, if you must, in 2D. The 3D postconversion is pointless. The Fault in Our Stars asks us to take out our hankies and have ourselves a good cry starting June 6.