Directed by: Jake Schreier.
Written by: Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber based on the novel by John Green.
Starring: Nat Wolff (Quentin), Cara Delevingne (Margo), Austin Abrams (Ben), Justice Smith (Radar), Halston Sage (Lacey), Jaz Sinclair (Angela), Cara Buono (Mrs. Jacobsen), Josiah Cerio (Young Quentin), Hannah Alligood (Young Margo), Meg Crosbie (Ruthie), Griffin Freeman (Jase), Caitlin Carver (Becca), RJ Shearer (Chuck).
John Green’s book, Paper Towns, is a very obvious response to what film critic Nathan Rabin coined as the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” story – where a wild, carefree, relatable, cool and of course beautiful woman swoops down into the life of a relatively uptight young man and teaches him to loosen up and really live. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is never a real character unto themselves, never have an inner life or goals – they are literally just in the movie in order to help the lead character – who is always a man – be a better person. Green’s book starts off as a typical Manic Pixie Dream Girl story – with the enigmatic and beautiful Margo stealing into her next door neighbor Quentin’s room, and taking him for a wild night of wreaking vengeance on those who have wronged her – and him as well. She is a popular girl, of course, and he is a nerd, of course. Margo then immediately disappears, and Quentin and his friends spend the rest of the movie assembling pieces of a puzzle that Margo left behind to try and track her down. The ultimate point, however, of Paper Towns – the book – is that neither Quentin nor Margo really know each other. They each have an idea in their head of who the other one is, and what it is they need – but in actuality, neither of them knows the other, and this is something they eventually must face. The movie based on Green’s book tells the same story, but I fear it basically misses the point of Green’s book – and instead of making a critique of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl story, has essentially made the ultimate version of it. It all has to do with the ending, which changes just enough that the meaning gets lost.
The story takes place in the last few weeks of high school for Quentin (Nat Wolff), who narrates the story. Once, he and Margo were best friends – but then, as so often happens, she become gorgeous and popular, and he became an invisible nerd. They still live next to each other, but they basically exist in different high school worlds. Margo pulls Quentin out of his boring life for one crazy night. The second act has Quentin and his friends Ben (Austin Abras) and Radar (Justice Smith) trying to assemble the various clues that Margo has left behind to track her down – which leads to the third act, a mad dash of a road trip to find her, and get back in time for prom.
There are things about Paper Towns that work quite well. Nat Wolff has an innate likability about him – and his bromance with Ben and Radar feels natural, and unforced, as the three characters do feel like real teenagers, and the supporting ones aren’t just there as fodder for the main character. The film takes its time with them – especially Radar – to make them their own characters. The film does the same for Halston Sage’s character of Lacey – Margo’s best friend – who eventually lets her guard down to see the person behind the popular girl persona she has had for years. Cara Delevingne is a fine choice to play Margo – this model-turned actress is actually quite good – she was the best thing about Michael Winterbottom’s not-very-good The Face of an Angel earlier this year – and she plays Margo precisely as she should in the early scenes – she definitely haunts the movie – as she should.
However, the movie kind of falls apart in the third act. Once Quentin and company start racing from Orlando to New York to try and find Margo, the film falls into a series of clichés and silliness the rest of the movie mainly avoided. And when the scene we’ve been waiting for the entire movie actually happens, it’s more than a little bit of a letdown. It was in the book as well – but that was by design, as Green was attempting to strip away some of the mythologizing that had been done – something the movie isn’t able to do.
Paper Towns then is two thirds of a decent teenage movie – one that treats its protagonists, and the target audience, with respect before it falls apart in the last act. As these types of movies go, it isn’t horrible – but considering the screenwriting team behind the movie also wrote the screenplay for The Spectacular Now – one of the great teen movies of recent years – it’s more than a little bit of a letdown. Perhaps the source material for that movie was stronger – but the source material for this movie was also stronger than the movie itself.