I saw The Fault in Our Stars a couple of weeks ago. Somebody asked me to go, so I did, knowing nothing about it. The film was a manipulative mess, but I’m pretty sure any cancer movie has to be at least somewhat manipulative. And while it seemed to work for most people — I’m honestly not sure I’ve ever heard such a large crowd of people sobbing that heavily before — I came out of it thinking, “Well, that was fuckin’ awful.” (People don’t ask me to go to the movies often.)
But the movie’s got an 8.5 out of 10 rating on IMDB, and an 80% “fresh” rating from Rotten Tomatoes, so it can’t just be an exceptional room of blubbering idiots that enjoyed this thing. In fact, seeing what a positive reception it’s gotten more or less across the board has made me think more critically about the film, and why I’d argue it doesn’t quite work.
1) CANCER IS TOO PRETTY
The Fault in Our Stars is a romance about two young characters who fall in love while dying of cancer. I don’t know their names, and I’m not going to look them up. Again, this is a recipe for audience manipulation, but I guess you can’t blame the movie for that. It’s kind of baked into the idea of any character with cancer. My problem is that everybody with cancer in this movie is beautiful.
I don’t have cancer. I’ve never died of cancer. Fortunately I’ve also never known anyone who has died of cancer. And yet I feel reasonably sure that the slow, painful, withering death from inside wouldn’t leave a corpse that looks like it belongs on the cover of Teen Vogue.
This is more than a logical inconsistency. That much I’d be okay with. This is downright cruel.
Why do these cancer patients have to look gorgeous? Wouldn’t that just make actual people suffering from cancer feel worse that they haven’t maintained their looks? The main guy in this movie had some kind of cancer that took his leg, which is very fortunate because they just need to keep him in long pants the whole time and his cancer hinders the audience in no way from fawning over his loveliness. The main girl wheels around an oxygen tank which, yeah, that’s not innately attractive, but they went out of their way to cast somebody who manages to look cute even with a tube up her nose. You can’t tell me they didn’t search long and hard for that; it’s not exactly a luxury everybody has.
This would have been a great story to tell with actors who aren’t conventionally attractive. Or, dare I say it, actors who aren’t attractive and look like they are dying.
After all, what’s the point of the cancer? To tug on the heartstrings, and that’s it. Two hot young people falling in love and porking for a while isn’t a touching story. It’s just what happens, and the fact that one or both of them may die soon is eclipsed by the fact that these are two hot young people porking, so it’s pretty hard to feel sorry for them. Fuck, that’s pretty much living the dream.
A much better story would have been about two young people who can’t rely on their looks because they’re at death’s door, having lost their sense of self-worth and their confidence, finding love with each other. Actual love that isn’t predicated on mere sexual attraction, that is, which might as well be what happened here.
One of the minor characters has eyeball cancer and so he loses his eyeballs, which conveniently allows him to wear sunglasses for the rest of the movie, and, once again, the cancer is out of sight and the character gets to look perfect. God forbid dying people don’t look dashing.
Why is a movie about kids dying of cancer so eager to hide the cancer?
It’s telling that the one character in the film who has an “unattractive” form of cancer is treated as a punch-line. He’s the leader of a support group, and it’s funny because he had to have a testicle removed. The sexy cancer kids all laugh at him, and we never get a sense that we aren’t supposed to be laughing along.
What an idiot! Why didn’t he get the smokin’ hot kind of cancer like the rest of us?
This movie sucks.
2) STUPIDITY AS INSPIRATION
There’s a scene in this movie wherein the main cancer girl is told she can’t do something, but then she does it. Hooray, everybody’s inspired now.
…or, almost everybody. I wasn’t inspired at all. I was actually kind of horrified, because they picked a pretty disastrous thing to have her overcome.
What would you expect a scene like this to be? Maybe she spends the night in a hospital, and the next day the nurse hands some documents over to her mother to sign, because the cancer girl is too weak to sign them. But the cancer girl protests and then takes the pen and signs them and makes a sassy face at the nurse. (Who is obviously black and fat.)
You’ve seen shitty things like that in movies before, but there’s at least a kind of logic to it. The “weak” character is seen as weaker than he or she really is, and the fact that the weak character is dismissed on account of that weakness is what inspires him / her to overcome it. Cool, right?
Sure. But in this movie, that scene is massively problematic. For one, it takes place in the Anne Frank house.
Just let that sink in, please. This movie about sexy cancer kids sets their inspiring scene in the Anne Frank house.
But anyway, they are heading up to the attic to see where some uglier kid actually endured some really awful shit, and the main cancer girl has trouble climbing the stairs. She has a serious and clear shortness of breath. The crowd of people waits behind her because she can barely move as she lugs her oxygen tank up one step at a time.
Then she gets to the final ladder, and people tell her not to climb, because she’s pretty clearly going to fucking die. But she ignores them all and lugs the oxygen tank up into the attic and everybody claps.
This is a tremendously irresponsible scene. For starters, the cancer girl’s doctor explicitly told her she wasn’t well enough to make the trip overseas in the first place. She ignores this professional medical opinion that’s cost her family hundreds of thousands of dollars, with her family’s idiotic support.
Then, when she’s there, her body is giving her every sign that what she’s doing is stupid. She’s not proving some fat nurse wrong…she’s trying to prove her body wrong. Her body. Remember, that thing that’s dying? Like, right now? She won’t even let anyone hold the oxygen tank for her as she literally collapses against walls.
Is this really the thing to frame as an inspirational moment? You might as well have had her jump out of a window and walk away feeling proud that she didn’t break her spine. The fact that you survived doesn’t mean that what you just did wasn’t inordinately stupid.
Oh well. At least it leads to a crowd of people happily applauding in the attic of the Anne Frank house and FUCK I JUST REALIZED HOW AWFUL THAT IS CHRIST.
This movie sucks.
3) MISOGYNY / ASSHOLERY
So that kid with the eyeball cancer? He has a girlfriend at the start of the movie, and then she breaks up with him. Man, that poor kid with eyeball cancer! Can you imagine anyone with a worse life?
Yes. His girlfriend. The movie doesn’t seem to realize that, though.
Early in the film they’re declaring their love for each other, but then the eyeball cancer advances to the point that the eyeball cancer doctor has to take his eyeballs out in order to get rid of the eyeball cancer. After this, his girlfriend leaves him, because she can’t handle being with a man who can’t see.
Is that kind of shallow and shitty?
Well…yeah. Sure. Of course. But what’s the alternative? If she really doesn’t love him anymore, what good does it do either of them to stay together? She told the truth. She didn’t sleep with someone else or lie about going to live with her dad or some shit…she told him what the actual problem was, even though it would make her sound superficial and like kind of a bitch. There’s an admirable bit of self-awareness there.
To me there is, anyway. The movie seems to think that this makes her a villain. The big moment of triumph in this plot thread is that the main cancer guy and the main cancer girl and the eyeball cancer guy all go to this girl’s house and throw eggs at her car. Her mom comes out to tell them to stop, the main cancer guy tells her to go fuck herself, and they keep throwing eggs at the car.
Why? Get a life, you assholes. You’re dying and you’re spending whatever hours you have left throwing eggs at the car of some girl who did nothing but exercise her right to end a relationship she was no longer happy in? If this is really eyeball cancer man’s idea of closure, then can you blame her for leaving him?
It’s very much worth noting that we hear his side of the story…and never hers. She vanishes from the film and everything we’re told about the breakup comes from him. If we’d heard her badmouthing him or making fun of him to her friends then maybe we’d see her as a bitch deserving an eggy car. As it stands, though, it’s just some girl who wanted to move on and this pack of assholes who won’t let her.
It’s problematic that, by default, we are expected to take the man’s side, even though we have no reason to believe the girl did anything out of line. It’s even more problematic that when we meet the girl, the guy is grabbing her and squeezing her tits in the parking lot. The main cancer girl even comments that she must be in pain with the way he’s groping her. And the movie sees this as a joke.
That’s a punchline. This guy is squeezing his girlfriend’s breasts so hard that she’s in physical pain in public, and that’s supposed to be funny. Yet when she leaves him because she admittedly was not mature enough to be in a relationship with somebody who has a disability, she becomes the villain.
That’s an extraordinary double-standard. Casual sexual abuse is fine. Leaving a man because you no longer love him is not.
This movie sucks.
4) THE MAIN CANCER GUY IS A SHIT
I hate the main cancer guy. Mainly I hate how taken everyone is by his depth and intelligence. He’s not smart; he’s some dumb, pretentious teen. Which is fine…there are plenty of dumb pretentious teens out there. Hell, I’ve been one for 30 years. The problem is that everyone else reacts to him like he’s Confucius H. Christ.
He’s not smart; he’s just annoying. His “thing,” I guess, is to walk around with an unlit cigarette in his mouth, so that somebody can ask him why he’s smoking when he has cancer, and he can point out that it isn’t lit, and then explain that what he’s really doing is putting the symbol of his own death between his lips but not giving it the power to kill him or some kind of fuck you man just fucking, fuck you.
The film treats this like it’s some kind of incredible insight and wisdom. All it does is remind me of Orr from Catch-22, who walked around with crab apples in his cheeks and rubber balls in his hands. He also gave ridiculous explanations as to why he did this. But — surprise, surprise — nobody in that book saw it as insightful or wise. They just kicked his ass for being annoying.
This guy needs his ass kicked. In addition to driving like an idiot — something else the film treats as a punchline, because I guess it’s funny that one asshole that’s dying is also endangering the lives of everyone else on the road? — and being passively domineering to just about everyone he meets…which the film sees as charm, of course…he even makes his friends throw a funeral for him while he’s still alive.
See, he wants to hear them talk about how awesome he is. And they do. And then he’s like, “Yeah, I am pretty awesome.” And then they’re all, “Yeah, I know, I just talked for a while about how awesome you were and I only wish I said you were even awesomer, because you are.”
There’s no irony here at all. I can imagine a film doing some kind of shit like this, but wouldn’t it be more meaningful if the friends decided to host the living-funeral so that they could say all the things they want to say to him before he goes? It loses a lot of meaning when dickball here just tells them to do it.
The whole character of the main cancer guy is problematic. This is exactly the kind of guy that your dying high school cancer daughter should be kept away from at all costs…and yet, she isn’t. Not only that, but everyone’s life is enriched by the fact that she isn’t, because he’s magical cancer Jesus Batman.
But, see, it’s also really sad because cancer took his leg. Which, well, I guess you really can’t tell because he’s wearing long pants and walking without a limp, but, trust us, it’s like, super tragic.
This movie sucks.
5) THE FUCKING AUTHOR
I guess it’s worth pointing out that I didn’t read the book this movie is based on. Maybe the book is great. Maybe it’s more nuanced and less fucking stupid all the damn time. So when I say “THE FUCKING AUTHOR” I don’t mean the author of the book…I mean the author in the movie.
He’s played by Willem Dafoe, who is literally the only watchable thing in the whole terrible film. The character he plays, though, is lousy.
He’s this alcoholic author that the main cancer girl loves, because he wrote some shitty book that ends in the middle of a sentence which is so profound you guys he’s a literary marvel. This hollow bullshit gimmick drives the Kancer Kidzz nuts, so they write to him, and then they go visit him, which is why they end up at the Anne Frank house, because this movie is a pile of shit and I guess he’s Anne Frank’s ghost’s neighbor.
That’s all fine and good. But Cancer Jack and Cancer Jill go to visit him so they can ask what happens to the shitty characters in that shitty book after that shitty ending.
And he…oh yes…he has the audacity to say that the book is the book, and anything they’d like to know about the characters is in there.
The movie and the characters both treat this as an affront of the highest order. Really, though, you won’t find many authors worth their salt who are going to verbally regale unwanted visitors with The Further Adventures of That Character From That Thing What I Wrote.
I can’t imagine tracking Thomas Pynchon down to ask him what happened to Oedipa after the estate auction.
Actually, yes I can. He’d punch me in the dick.
I don’t know. I get frustrated when authors are portrayed this way. That isn’t how writing works, and we’re not rude for being unable or unwilling to answer questions like that. We don’t walk around with a kind of literary Toon Town in our heads. We write when we have something to say, and then we obsess over finding the perfect way to say it.
By the time a manuscript of any length leaves our hands, we’re exhausted. We’re beat. Why? Because we put everything we had into that work. Everything. So, no, some unexpected visitors from a foreign country trivializing the work we did by asking nonsensical questions that seek to turn characters we cared about into adventure-seriel archetypes probably aren’t going to be indulged in their idiocy. In fact, they probably do need to learn how to read more closely if they’re finishing books and having to track down authors because they can’t comprehend anything they just fucking read.
Willem Dasalinger even shows up at the man cancer guy’s funeral to atone for being a big ol’ meany head and offers to tell the cancer girl whatever she wants to know about the characters, but she tells him to fuck off and drives away, because what kind of asshole is he to fly halfway around the world to give her an answer to her dumbass question?
You go girl! Speed away and make him look like an idiot.
This movie sucks.