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'Fault in Our Stars' heart can't be dismissed

**1/2 (out of four)

As much as I complain about comic book movies—some of them are good, but enough already—the source material is ripe for big-screen adaptation. What’s not as easy, despite the similarly devoted fanbase, is translating a beloved novel whose greatest strengths are emotional and whose heroes don’t wear capes. The beautiful romance of former Chicagoan John Green’s powerful and widely popular “The Fault in Our Stars” stays beautiful in movie form, though the filmmaking often fails to do it justice.

(Reminder: This is a review of the movie, not the book or the story, both of which I support enthusiastically.)

To its credit, “The Fault in Our Stars” remains a drama about people who have cancer, not a cancer drama about cancer patients. It’s got some wit and writers (the team behind “The Spectacular Now” and “[500] Days of Summer”) who can be funny and sweet. Hazel (Shailene Woodley) has survived longer than expected, and the charismatic Augustus (Ansel Elgort, Woodley’s brother in “Divergent”) has had no evidence of cancer for more than a year. They develop a relationship that’s meant to be a big love, way bigger than nonsense in something like “Endless Love.” And it is. What happens between Hazel and Augustus isn’t bound by age or the amount of time they’ve spent together. They experience the euphoria and devastation of deep connection, kicked off from the ever-relatable swapping of things they love (in this case, books) and, at least for Hazel, turning her not-yet-ringing phone into a watched pot.

It’s disappointing, then, that director Josh Boone (“Stuck in Love”) has such a rigid feel for the material, keeping the bullet points and sacrificing the details. “The Fault in Our Stars” maintains the sadness and frustration of Green’s book, but the novel’s dimensions are lost as the observation and poetry trickle away and general ideas are replicated without the necessary context.

With less of Hazel’s first-person perspective, the peaks and valleys of anticipation and pain aren’t as high or low. And for a film that begins with the main character declaring, “This is the truth. Sorry,” the sprinkling of pop songs atop large moments of feeling seems to contradict what Green’s book so eloquently reveals: That significant moments in life, including death, aren’t artificially enhanced scenes out of movies. Their spontaneity is what makes them real or wonderful or tragic. He sees illness as a specific, awful complication in a world where everyone is living and dying at a different rate, but on screen the comparatively light-on-conflict “The Fault in Our Stars” only embraces the tip of the rough edges.

Of course, movies rarely live up to their books. I got choked up a few times and saw plenty of bleary eyes after the screening. Amid very good casting (including Laura Dern as Hazel’s mom), “The Fault in Our Stars” captures genuine courage and the incredible luck and impact that comes with being your favorite person’s favorite person.

Watch Matt review the week's big new movies Fridays at noon on NBC.



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