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Augustus Waters: 'The Fault in our Stars' Manic Pixie Dream Guy

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire June 9, 2014 at 2:31PM

Is Gus Waters a dream boy, or kind of a pushy creep?
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Ansel Elgort in "The Fault in Our Stars"
Ansel Elgort in "The Fault in Our Stars"

This article discusses the plot of "The Fault in Our Stars."

While reviews of "The Fault in Our Stars" were unilaterally high on Shailene Woodley's performance, critics were a lot less united in their views of Ansel Elgort's turn as her ceaselessly chipper love interest, Augustus Waters. An accomplished athlete who lost one leg to osteosarcoma, Gus waltzes into Hazel Grace Lancaster's life like a sunbeam in a beat-up bomber jacket, his optimism and self-assurance so unflagging the he starts to feel slightly unhinged. 

At Vulture, Matt Patches assembles "The Case Against Gus Waters," arguing that the character isn't just unbelievable but, frankly, kind of a creep:

At no point does Gus demonstrate that he exists outside the bubble he's created for Hazel and himself. His parents act like Stepford substitutes and his basement room looks like Ikea's bachelor pad, complete with a cool-guy "V for Vendetta" poster and a dozen basketball trophies. He reads books based on his favorite video game, but would happily try high literature if it allows him to quote it at the right moment. Gus is also a virgin -- an admission that leaves Hazel dumbfounded, then swooning. Has this guy's entire life been building to crossing paths with this young woman? 

There's a sense that Hazel doesn't totally buy the Manic Cancer Metaphor Boy act, that maybe she'll shake her pursuer and exist somewhere between fantasy and harsh reality. Nope. She resists him for much of the movie, and when they finally lock lips -- after Hazel struggles to climb the stairs at Anne Frank's house -- there's a weird sense of guilt lingering in the air. She's smitten with Gus, sure, but this love connection isn't what the Hazel at the beginning of the movie yearned for. Gus dragged her here. There are moments where Hazel snaps out of hypnosis to resist how easy it all feels, when "The Fault in Our Stars" might own its declaration of being true to life, but Gus won't allow for wiggle room. "Your trying to keep your distance from me in no way lessens my affection for you,” he firmly states as she wrestles with her own mortality. No means no, buddy!

Elgort struggles mightily with the character as written, who's apparently a less complicated and coherent creation than in John Green's book, and the third-act revelation that Gus' cancer has returned with a vengeance casts his eerily peppy demeanor in a new light, turning what's seemed like a cross between adolescent fantasy and long-con pickup artistry into a defense mechanism. But by then, it's too late to turn the ship around; rather than constructing a credible character, the movie has simply swapped one screenwriting device for another.

Patches isn't the only writer to connect Gus Waters to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the stock character, named by the Dissolve's Nathan Rabin, of a kooky-but-lovable young woman whose primary function is to believe in (and usually sleep with) a movie's male hero. Both "Fault" and Green's "Looking for Alaska," he has said, were written to "deconstruct the manic pixie dream girl idea by showing it to be a harmful and ultimately objectifying way that men (particularly young men) sometimes view women (particularly young women)." But what about Gus? Does flipping the MDPG's gender make the character any less objectionable? Here's his answer to that question, which Green for some reason delivers while playing Xbox FIFA:


In essence, Green says, part of "Fault's" project was to "reconceive the hero's journey as one from strength to weakness," which is why Guy presents, like most fictional romantic objects, as "improbably charming and precious and quick on his feet" at first. "Gus," he explains, "is one of those guys when you meet him, you're like, 'That guy's amazing!' and the second time you meet him, you're like, 'That guy only has five funny stories about himself.'"

That kind of characterization might be harder to pull off in a movie, or perhaps "Fault" director Josh Boone just didn't handle it nimbly enough. (Elgort's performance isn't flawless, but it doesn't seem like the real blame lies with him.) One question still nags at me, though, and it's not one for which I have an answer: Would Gus have bothered me as much if the character was female -- or if Boone had cast the male equivalent of Kirsten Dunst or Zooey Deschanel? The fact that I can't begin to think of an actor who would fit that description might be more revealing than anything: Actresses learn to work up a quirky persona, but there's no percentage in their male counterparts doing the same. None of this makes Elgort's Gus Waters any more palatable, but it might be helpful to keep in mind the next time we're prepared to swallow a female character who serves the exact same function.


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