It's burned into the genre that Fatal Illness Love Stories tell lies about fatal illnesses, and that's just that. But it's a hell of a lot more irritating when the story opens up by making an explicit, special claim for itself that this time, we're going to get to hear the truth about what it means to be sick, and this is the first thing that happens in The Fault in Our Stars, in which two overwritten teenagers fall in love and have cancer happen at them.

Okay, so fair is fair, the cancer had already happened before Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) and Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) have their meet cute - and the way the script by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, adapted from what I gather to be a generation-defining YA novel by John Green, insists on those character names being wielded in full is one of the first immediate signs that this is basically just one of those tepid quirky indies from the '00s with the quirk subbed out and replaced with a surface-level insistence on physical frailty and death. In fact, they meet at a support group for teens with cancer and teens who have survived cancer, though both these particular teens have had that survival come at a heavy price: Hazel's lungs are barely functional, and for the rest of what will not be a long life, she's going to have to cart around an oxygen tank; Augustus no longer has his right leg.

There are problems with the film as a love story, and there are different problems with the film as an exegesis of the state of having cancer, and one of the problems with both is that the script doesn't seem remotely interested in figuring out a way to make those two films coalesce into one. But the thing that really steamed my clams about it all, for reasons that I am not proud to say are more personal history-related than aesthetic objectivity-related, is that I never believed, for more than one scene running, that either of these kids had ever been sick a day in their life. It's only right to concede that, as the film opens, neither of them are presently in treatment (this does not, of course, remain the case as it moves on, else how would it have a Gloriously Tragic ending?), but neither one of the actors even begins to sell any kind of physical weakness or vulnerability, either - and for Woodley, who spends only a minute or two of the entire two hours and change of the movie without an oxygen tube on her face, the failure to figure out how to express Hazel's labored breathing and lack of stamina in any moment that the script isn't actively calling on her to foreground that is a failure that everything else in the movie can't begin to make up for, even the very real strengths in Woodley's performance elsewhere. Elgort doesn't even have that - but I'll get to him.

The film banks everything on two precepts: that we'll be so enamored by the pair's love and chemistry that we'll be eagerly rooting for them to find whatever sublime happiness they can in the short time allotted to them; and that we'll be so touched by their strength and ability to withstand experiences that nobody of any age, let alone an adolescent, can be totally prepared to face, that we'll respond to their sardonic, preternaturally self-aware way of communicating and thinking with sympathy and affection. The latter of these already fails if we don't buy that they've actually felt suffering, and I've already said that I don't. And this makes the hyper-literate, arch dialogue (which I understand comes mostly intact from Green's book) grate on the ears; I can only imagine it landing if we allow that it's the defense mechanism used by kids trying to use faux-sophistication to keep grim emotions at bay, like in Juno; but if the kids can't even convince us that they have grim emotions in the first place, it just feels like brittle, self-conscious writing by people for whom feeble wordplay and unimpressive profundity ("some infinities are bigger than other infinities" is a line I'd expect to see more in a parody of pretentious writing than an example of it) is more important than honest characterisation.

The other thing is how the film works as a love story: and for all my longstanding irritation with Woodley, I have to say that she captures something charming and natural about being a young person who wasn't expecting to fall in love and is most glad to have done so, but also doesn't quite trust it. The problem here is that Elgort is a flawlessly miscast performer, with a face that positively radiates insincerity and glad-handing smarm. Which, of course, the actor can't help, though still, everything he does is mired in a smug, self-congratulatory register of entitlement and braggadocio: he's kind of like a walking billboard of white male privilege for whom even the loss of a leg to cancer is more of a sign of how cool he is than a source of any need for self-reflection or humility. He's hugely unappealing and it's hard for to believe that as guarded and aware a young woman as Hazel generally seems to be could possibly be taken in by his line; except of course, it's not a line, it's just a criminal marriage of bro-ish acting and deeply inauthentic writing.

So much of the film rests on these characters that it hardly seems worth mentioning anything else: Laura Dern gives the film its one generally terrific performance, expressing a kind of shrill enthusiasm that subtly and beautifully reads as an awareness on the actress's part, if not the screenplay or direction's, that parents of children with terminal illness have their own shit to go through, and mask it with pumped-up positivity and glee. In fact, the adults in the film are generally more compelling than the kids, though how much of that is me being a 30-something critic, and how much is the fact that the adults are played by better actors, I can't quite say.

At the level of cinema the film is legible without being in any way elegant. The fact that an utter nobody like Josh Boone was tapped to direct tells us everything we have to know about the artistic priorities on the producers' part: movies based on books like this aren't directed, they're facilitated. One cannot speak a word against the technique in The Fault in Our Stars, because there really isn't any: just carefully uninflected scenes that re-create narrative points without accidentally putting any kind of spin or personality on them. It's product, after all: perfectly serviceable product, perfectly empty product, product that will make the money it was supposed to make and then make way for the next product. More consistency from Woodley and anything at all from Elgort might have succeeded in making this a touching love story; as it is, they're just cogs in a big machine designed to give people what they already expected to get from the thing, good or bad, before the lights went down. In my case, it wasn't quite as rancid as my expectations, but I anticipated bad, and bad I got.