DEATH, CAN’T LIVE WITH IT, CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT IT: The Fault in Our Stars and Dormant Beauty


Ever wonder what a reader for a contest or agency thinks when he reads your screenplay? Check out my new e-book published on Amazon: Rantings and Ravings of a Screenplay Reader, including my series of essays, What I Learned Reading for Contests This Year, and my film reviews of 2013. Only $2.99. http://ow.ly/xN31r
Warning: SPOILERS
Jeffrey: You loved Darius. And look what happens. Do you want me to go through this, with Steve?
Sterling: Yes.
                                   Jeffrey, Paul Rudnick
fault in our starsI’m not sure why, but I always get the feeling that when Romeo and Juliet is made into a movie it’s a hit and that teens tend to flock to that story as if their life depended upon it as much as it does the title characters of the play.
I’ve never quite understood why people so young are so fascinated by their own mortality, and even more so, find the need to have it represented in such a gorgeously tragic manner.

 

(This can also be seen in a reverse sort of way in the Twilight Series where the heroine becomes enraptured of the more or less immortal vampire—not having to die, or being eternally dead, seems to have the same fascination for teens as the concept of dying in an immediate future.)

 

I suppose in some strange way, it gives their lives more immediacy and more meaning.

 

And I can’t exactly blame them or make fun of them for it. For me, it was Hamlet and his gloomy, existential, can’t make up his pitiful mind ending that always gave me a rush.

 

Maybe there’s something evolutionary about it.

 

I don’t know.

 

All I know is, well, there it is.

 

At the beginning of the new movie The Fault in Our Stars, about two teens with cancer and little hope of seeing too many more sunrises, sunsets, the heroine, Hazel, says (and I’m heavily paraphrasing here, heavily) that her tale is not one of those romantic dramas about beautiful people dying beautiful deaths in a beautiful story.

 

Except, of course, it is.

 

Now, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, it’s just an observation. But in the end, The Fault in Our Stars is just as romantically beautiful as any of the other romantically beautiful movies about beautiful people dying, like Dark Victory, Love Story and Camille (and, yeah, in its own way, Romeo and Juliet).

 

But now that that’s settled, I guess the really big and important question here is whether The Fault in Our Stars is any good.

 

Wrong.

 

No, The Fault in Our Stars is one of those movies that is, in many ways, beyond criticism. It doesn’t really matter how good or bad it is. It’s the sort of movie that has so much meaning to those who wait hours in line to see it, that any naysaying (or any prosaying) on my part is pretty much irrelevant.

 

Still, for the record, The Fault in Our Stars is not a great movie, it’s never going to appear on the Cahiers du Cinéma or British Film Institute’s list of the greatest hundred films, or be studied in college in film classes in the future.

 

I’m not even convinced I could say it’s a good movie.

 

At the same time, I think I can say that it’s a perfectly good movie that does what it sets out to do and does it rather well, with strong production values; satisfying screenplay; sturdy acting; and solid, if a bit stolid, direction.

 

And if you haven’t gotten out your handkerchief by the time the credits have started flowing at the end like your tears should be…well, I just don’t know what to tell you.

 

There’s nothing that surprising or new here. It’s a movie that wears its heart (and its sincerely sincere sincerity); its symbolism (especially one about a cigarette); its acting (it manages to even make the somewhat goofy blinders wearing head of a Christian support group sympathetic); its witty dialog (that especially tends to call attention to itself); and its story (which is quite predictable, the only plot twist being extremely obvious not so much by it being telegraphed, but because it’s the only structural way to make the second half of the movie interesting) on its sleeve.

 

Well, I will backtrack a bit. I do have to say that there are a group of scenes in the middle, a trip the characters take to Amsterdam, that did seem to rise above the usual. In one of them, Hazel and her boyfriend Augustus, visit the author of Hazel’s favorite book, An Imperial Affliction, a novel the author of the source material made up about a little girl dying from a terminal illness.

 

The movie author (played by Willem Dafoe—and what a face and demeanor he has; it’s gotten to the point where all he has to do is show up and everything else is taken care of) is a broken, down alcoholic (a rather well kept up and handsome broken down alcoholic, but you know, some people wear it better than others) and suddenly he goes into a cynical tirade about the emotional exploitation of dying. It’s a vicious and brutal attack on Hazel, all the more so because there is something so true about it, something that can’t be argued.

 

Of course, the filmmakers tend to soften this with his reappearance toward the end, but still, it’s a startling scene.

 

After this assault, Hazel and Augustus go to the Anne Frank house and she finds herself in the home of a teenager that was just as doomed as she is. And there’s something haunting and fragile about the whole thing.

 

The screenplay also makes one very astute observation about the terminally ill. Hazel often spends much of her time trying to comfort the living rather than the living comforting her. Many of the things she does, including going to that somewhat cloying Christian support group, is to please her parents, not because she wants to or finds any real help there.

 

It’s an odd thing about death in that, in a similar way that Hazel says at the end that funerals are for the living, the dying are often the ones who take care of the living.

 

Hazel is played by Shailene Woodley (of The Descendants and The Spectacular Now, and the attempt to do what Jennifer Lawrence is doing Divergent) and she does a masterful job of holding the whole thing together. Ansel Elgort (also of Divergent) is Augustus; he’s fine, though he tends to telegraph his acting choices a bit more than he possibly should.

 

The screenplay is by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber from a book by John Green. They started out well with the different and exuberant (500) Days of Summer, but since then, with Pink Panther 2, The Spectacular Now and The Fault in Our Stars, it feels like they may be entering the journeyman mold.

 

That solid if a bit stolid direction is by John Boone.

 

The cast is filled out by standup comedian Mike Birbiglia as the head of the Christian support group (a good role for him since he always seems to have this bewildered sadness in his eyes); San Trammell of True Blood as Hazel’s father; and Nat Wolff looking a bit too much like Christopher Mintz-Plasse here for his own good perhaps.

 

It also has Laura Dern as Hazel’s mother. As usual she just radiates on screen. There’s something about her performances in which she is over the top, yet comes across as incredibly realistic at the same time (probably why she’s so perfect for David Lynch films).

 

Go and have a good cry. It’ll do you good.

 

dormantbeauty001zpsae02It’s 2009, Italy, and Eluana Englaro is 39 years old. She’s also been in a vegetative coma for seventeen years.   Now her family is going to remove her life support and let, well, nature take its course. But this decision on their part leads to protests and counter protests and an attempt by the parliament to vote in a law to make this illegal before Eluana dies.

 

I have to admit that I am sometimes surprised at how much religion still plays a role in Europe. In the U.S., I often get the feeling we think the whole continent is becoming more and more secular (and there are many spiritual leaders here who think it’s heading straight to hell in a hand basket). But in reality, religion is still very much an essential part of the fabric over there.

 

And I suppose Dormant Beauty, an Altmanesque film that revolves around several different fictional characters set against the true backdrop of Eluana’s story, is proof positive in many ways, as various factions and people conflict, both inwardly and externally, over the situation.

 

Dormant Beauty is written by Veronica Raimo (a first film), Stefano Rulli (an old pro who helped give us the incredible The Best of Youth) and Marco Bellochio, who also directed (he first made an impact on our shores in 1965 with Fists in the Pocket, which was followed up with China is Near the next year; ever since, though he has been a mainstay in Italian cinema, his movies have had a bit more trouble finding their way over here, though Vincere, about one of Mussolini’s mistresses, received attention a few years ago).

 

It’s a film that has a certain, strong, mesmerizing power perhaps because the authors don’t take sides, but just present everyone’s stories on their own terms, from a member of the Berlusconi government who wants to flout his party and vote against the proposed law for personal reasons, but in so doing, dooming his political career before it has even begun; to his devout daughter, who protests on the opposite side and thinks she finds true love while doing so; to the brother of a young man with possible mental and emotional issues who wants to allow Eluana to die; to a doctor trying to stop a heroin addict from killing herself; to an actress who has alienated herself from her family, immersed herself in her Catholicism, because she has a daughter in a coma.

 

No one is ridiculed (well, maybe the heartless souls who start pools on how long Eluana will live after she is removed from life support, or the politicians who don’t really care, but are only interested in the political ramifications, and are saved at the last minute from having to ultimately take a stand by what happens to Eluana). Everyone is given their due. Everyone is allowed to feel the way they do without being condemned.

 

Raimo, Rulli, and Bellochio don’t try to tell you what to believe or what the correct moral stance is. They only want you to experience what the characters on screen are going through, to see the events through their eyes, to feel their emotions.

 

It’s a haunting movie.

 

With Toni Servillo, perhaps Italy’s greatest actor today (The Great Beauty), as Uliano Beffardi, the government representative struggling whether to go against his party or his soul; Isabelle Huppert, perhaps France’s greatest actress today, as the actress; and Maya Sansa (of The Best of Youth, Good Morning, Night and most recently seen here in Bicycling with Moliere) as the heroin addict.

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