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'The Fault in Our Stars' review: Stacks the deck in its pursuit of tears

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The Fault in Our Stars

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For a film so clearly designed only to be a quintessential tearjerker, this tale of first love and dying young manages to pull emotional strings by way of strong performances and a story that borders on manipulative.

In short: Sixteen-year-old Hazel (Shailene Woodley) has stage-four cancer that began in her thyroid and has spread to her lungs. At her mother's insistence, Hazel reluctantly attends a support group for teens living with cancer - where she catches the eye of Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort). (watch the trailer)

Find showtimes for "The Fault in Our Stars"

It wouldn't be completely surprising if the tissue manufacturing industry underwrote this story, which overlaps first love with dying young. This is exactly the type of movie young people will buy today and keep on their living room shelves when they need a good cry tomorrow - probably housed inside a glass case with "In case of heartbreak, break glass" stenciled on it.

To that end, "TFIOS" is grounded in the strong foundation of two strong performances from Elgort and Woodley.

Ansel Elgort is the absolute and clear star of this film - he commands every scene he's in and relentlessly pushes the story forward with equal parts charm, sincerity and lighthearted ribbing. Although this is ostensibly Hazel's journey, Augustus is the catalyst for just about every single plot point in this narrative.

While Woodley's character is more the passenger than the driver of this story, the award-winning actress brings a genuine and grounded honesty to Hazel. Her protagonist is reluctant and guarded - but she never comes across as whiny or annoying. Woodley imparts a relatable dimension to her teen cancer patient, which makes her plight and journey all the more accessible.

But for a film that's openly hostile toward cliches and conventions, "TFIOS" is - fundamentally - quite traditional in its telling of a tragic love story.

Although emotionally moving, the overall plot of "TFIOS" is quite vague until the third act. Up to that point, it's simply a pair of teens doing ... things ... apparently in the guise of living life to its fullest. But this film happily bobs around without much in the way of direction, until the proverbial shoe drops in act three.

"TFIOS" plays a little too loosely with inevitability -- allowing its story and character arcs to unfortunately slip into predictability.

Then there's the dialogue -- which ranges from excessively witty to outright clunky and unnatural.

For example: "I hope you realize, you trying to keep your distance from me in no way lessens my affection for you." These words looks weird in print -- and they sound forced on the big screen. Whenever this story wants to stress one of its core, well-meaning messages, it often resorts to melodramatic, unnatural dialogue à la, any CW show.

The combined insistence an uninspired plot and characters just short of feeling realistic is the difference between a "movie" and a "film." Movies are entertaining - films reveal grander truths.

"The Fault in Our Stars" is a perfectly fine movie designed specifically to harvest tears -- but its clumsy attempt to convey real truths about living life in the face of death, by way of convenient plot holes and questionable dialogue, drags "TFIOS" back down to Earth.

Final verdict: "The Fault in Our Stars" effectively pulls the heart strings - even if it has to cheat here and there.

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