Just in the past nine months alone, she’s been in two horribly titled romances made from best-selling young-adult novels, both adapted, in fact, by the same writing team, best known for previous Smackdown challenger (500) Days of Summer starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who was also the star of 50/50, which shares a theme with…
Well, I’m getting ahead of myself. So let’s get on with this week’s bout, as we pit last fall’s The Spectacular Now against current release The Fault in Our Stars. Because if Movie Smackdown didn’t do it, who Woodley?
“This isn’t a movie,” the protagonist of The Fault in Our Stars informs us in its opening narration, which sent most of the audience scrambling up the aisles to demand a refund. Those of us who stayed followed the bittersweet journey of Hazel (Woodley), an acerbic, pixie-haired teenager whose thyroid cancer forces her to tote an oxygen tank everywhere and renders her so aloof that she devotes her free time to repeatedly reading An Imperial Affliction, her favorite novel (and another horrible title, although the book is mercifully not real) supposedly penned by a reclusive author who will eventually show up in the form of a Special Guest Star.
Anyway, enter fellow sufferer Augustus (Woodley’s Divergent co-star Ansel Elgort), a weirdly articulate former athlete with a prosthetic leg, which is offset by his bedroom eyes, killer smirk, and oddly positive attitude. The flirty text messages between Hazel and Augustus pile up, eventually leading to a whirlwind Make-a-Wish trip to Amsterdam (with Hazel’s supernaturally easygoing mom Laura Dern in tow) to bombard the aforementioned expatriate novelist with naïve questions and enjoy a rapturous first kiss at that most romantic of tourist stops, the Anne Frank House. (Yes, really.)
The movie is based on a best-seller by John Green and directed by Josh Boone, previously known for Stuck in Love, unseen by me or, apparently, anyone.
The Defending Champion:
How wicked cool is The Spectacular Now’s popular and fun-loving protagonist Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) (think “young John Cusack”) (kids, ask your parents)? So cool that when his girlfriend Cassidy, played by the awesome Brie Larson (see Woodley/Larson interview link above, if you haven’t already) dumps him after catching him kinda sorta almost cheating, not only do they still stay friendly and flirty, but her new boyfriend Marcus (Dayo Okeniyi) comes to him for advice on how to treat her. That cool.
But Sutter (dammit, even his name is cool) soon (like, REALLY soon) finds new distraction by way of Aimee (Woodley), a sweet-natured, bookish Plain Jane with whom he bonds after she finds him laid out after a night of reckless drunk driving (awww!). To his surprise as much as anyone’s, his feelings for her evolve from platonic and sympathetic to sincerely romantic. The two bond over their uncertain futures and their respective loss of their fathers, hers having died years before, and his being a pilot gone missing, or at least that’s the story as told by his mother (the always welcome Jennifer Jason Leigh). The truth turns out to be far more complicated, but the bigger question is, of course, why didn’t I go to the high school where the Plain Janes looked like Shailene Woodley?
Both films, as previously mentioned, share not only the same star, but also screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, which (perhaps coincidentally) leads to some uncomfortable similarities. One key, plot-hinging scene in both has its main couple excitedly visiting an elusive father-figure, and the visits don’t go as planned, for comparable reasons. (It should be said, though, that both scenes provide opportunities for powerful cameos from the ever-reliable Willem Dafoe and Kyle Chandler, respectively.) While both are bittersweet romances that feel specifically geared to the tweener crowd, they fall into separate sub-categories from there: TFIOS is ultimately a tearjerker, whereas Spectacular Now is…
…Well, there’s really no getting around this: It’s basically a poor man’s Say Anything (1989). (And it’s not just me saying this.) Seriously, it’s enough of an imitation to deserve its own Smackdown, both depicting unlikely romances between the brainy, anti-social girl and the fun-loving but irresponsible guy, the disappointing dad, the college-or-not-college dilemma, the scene of playing “In Your Eyes” on the boom-box… Okay, I made that part up, but you get the idea. What’s sorely missing here is Cameron Crowe’s wonderfully quotable and witty dialogue, his vast array of amusing supporting characters, and most crucially, a genuine external threat to the central relationship (e.g., the John Mahoney character).
The only hurdles the Spectacular couple faces sprout from Sutter’s own self-destructiveness, and when it finally becomes a threat to their relationship, it feels more like a clumsily contrived End of Act Two moment than something springing naturally from its characters. In its best moments, it’s a funny, touching, and genuinely romantic film (their First Time scene is beautifully handled by director James (Smashed) Ponsoldt, in one long take), but the developments in its final quarter feel more like a Psych 101 textbook dramatization than a movie.
Fault faces practically the opposite set of problems. With cancer being the looming, undefeatable villain from its opening frames, it’s definitely not in want of external conflict, but it is in want of stronger characters, stronger dialogue, and a less predictable story. Woodley is her usual radiant and likable presence, but her co-star Elgort, charming and photogenic as he is, is saddled with a character who is simply Too Good to Be True, a dreamboat ex-jock who is also well-read enough to comprehend references to hamartia, promptly answers her texts and reads the book she recommends, listens to and supports her in every way, and is always, always, there for her and never screws up in even the tiniest of ways.
Anyway, point is, she’s a nice, amiable girl; he’s a perfect guy; and together, even in spite of them both facing horrible fatal illnesses, they make the World’s Most Boring Couple. Even their PG-rated sex scene is boring, is how boring they are. It’s not an entirely bad film, with plenty in its margins to recommend it; in addition to Dafoe and Dern (who, Wild at Heart fans will be disappointed to hear, share no scenes), Nat Wolff delivers a scene-stealing turn as Elgort’s pal who wisecracks right through the loss of his sight, and its final act will indeed evoke tears from its intended audience (which I am admittedly not, so grains of salt should perhaps be taken).
But once you’ve dried them, the entire experience will quickly fade from memory. If any of it winds up having staying power, it will have amusing memes like these to thank.
And the winner is… Say Anything!
Okay, I’m being told I’m not allowed to do that, but what it boils down to is that neither of these is a must-see, largely due to the flatness of their scripts. (Is it possible these guys just… aren’t very good at this?) Neither is a total failure, thanks in no small part to Woodley’s natural, approachable charm rising above the material. But Spectacular Now has the advantage of Teller’s affable Cusackishness, rendering it ultimately a slight but agreeable time-filler. Fault in Our Stars is an occasionally effective tearjerker, but due to the smug perfection of its leading male character and some truly lame dialogue, a frequently irritating one (and at two hours, an overlong one). Even at the risk of now being on record of having handed defeat to a second cancer movie, I’m still going with The Spectacular Now.