Paper Towns (2015) / Drama-Mystery
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some language, drinking, sexuality and partial nudity - all involving teens
Running Time: 109 min.
Cast: Nat Wolff, Cara Delevingne, Austin Abrams, Justice Smith, Halston Sage, Jaz Sinclair, Cara Buono
Small role: Ansel Elgort
Director: Jake Schreier
Screenplay: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber (based on the book by John Green)
Review published July 25, 2015
Paper Towns was likely green-lit thanks to the success of 2014's The Fault in Our Stars, the popular adaptation of another young-adult novel by John Green from the very same screenwriters, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (The Spectacular Now, 500 Days of Summer) . However, this movie doesn't have Shailene Woodley's strong performance, nor does it have the occasionally profound moments anchored underneath the contrivances. This one dips back further in Green's back catalog to a book he had written back in 2008, and the writers are also slated to dip back even further for their next project in adaption Green's very first novel, "Looking for Alaska".
Nat Wolff (Palo Alto, Stuck in Love) stars as Quentin, a nerdy senior in an Orlando, Florida high school who mostly grew up with a crush on the fiercely independent and impulsive girl across the street, Margo (Delevingne, Anna Karenina). They were good friends in their youth, but have been mostly estranged in their teens, until one night, Margo climbs in through Quentin's window and asks him to abet her in one crazy night of pranks after she finds out her boyfriend has been cheating on her. Just as the two become closer than they've been in years, Margo disappears. Her parents have grown weary of chasing after her, as she has run away several times before, so the authorities aren't actively looking for the 18-year-old, but Quentin soon discovers she's left clues on where to find her should he so desire, which he does. With best buds Ben (Abrams, Gangster Squad) and Radar (Smith, "The Get Down") in tow, Quentin sets about taking a big risk for the first time in his sheltered life, going on a hunt for additional hints in order to be reunited with the closest thing to love he's ever experienced.
Paper Towns gets a proven director in Jake Schreier, who impressed with his 2012 debut, Robot & Frank. Alas, Schreier, while crafting a good looking movie, can't elevate the heavily contrived material into something more than a cloying YA property, smoothing out the indie rough edges that made his previous work so much more interesting.
In addition to the phony qualities to the story, Paper Towns is filled to the brim with unrealistic characterizations that makes this one of the least likeable group of teenagers I've seen in a film in quite some time. This is especially true of the 'comic relief' sidekick, Ben, who probably should win some sort of award for portraying the most irritating teenager ever to (dis)grace the silver screen. The more the filmmakers try to push him as funny and endearing, the more loathsome he comes across, and that is plenty loathsome, especially when he gets drunk (quoting "Game of Thrones", peeing into empty beer cans, and singing renditions of the "Pokemon" theme song are just some of the activities we're supposed to be amused by). The only benefit of having him in the movie is to make our main protagonist, Quentin, almost seem tolerable by comparison, even though he's yet another quirky and idealized schmuck that Green can't seem to resist spotlighting. I was half-hoping that, during their road trip, they'd find themselves in the middle of nowhere and the rest of the film would become a slasher film, and they're the victims to be dispatched one by one.
Then there's the problem with the 'love' that Quentin has for Margo. Yes, it fits in with typical teen crushes, so that's forgivable, but you begin to question whether he truly loves her for who she is when he seems to not have a finger on the pulse of her in the slightest. (To the movie's credit, this is addressed late in the story). Margo is a heavily idealized character that only exists in the fantasy-land of a young author's imagination, where old texts of Walt Whitman are strewn around her bedroom, which is also filled with a collection of classic and rare LPs that would probably only make make her grandparents drool. Those too-precious elements aren't just cornered into one character, but all of the rest. Radar (his name alone seems another pushy attempt to play cute) lives in a household in which his parents are striving for the Guinness record for owning the largest 'Black Santa" collection.
Despite annoying characters, the film does retain a modicum of mystery as we watch a lot of improbable sleuthing on the part of these teenagers, following a string of clues that even Dan Brown would deem too ludicrous to inject into his stories and expect us to swallow, such as highlighted poetry quotes, thirty-year-old road maps in secret locations, and edits to Wikipedia-style entries to towns that don't really exist. And we always know when it is Margo because she's so rebellious and nonconformist, she throws in random capital letters in her words, because, "the rules of capitalization are so unfair to the words in the middle of a sentence." Talk about someone who can inspire anyone to do great things -- this is a gal who knows what battles are worth fighting for!
By the end of the film, you'll either come away refreshed that it doesn't exactly end up how you might think, or upset that you've wasted your time following phony-baloney characters stuck in the middle of a faux-erudite shaggy-dog story. Paper Towns is supposed to make those who follow its story want to live a life of fulfillment outside of our comfort zone. It fails primarily because it is made by filmmakers who firmly embrace tried-and-true convention, the comfort zone of teen- and road-movie clichés, in order to do so. Although it might appear on paper that this it a movie that could be heavily populated with ideas, when you actually take a look for yourself, you'll come to find that it is as false and as vacant as the fictitious locales from which the film derives its title.
©2015 Vince Leo