2015, PG-13, 109 mins.
2015, PG-13, 109 mins.
Nat Wolff as Quentin Jacobsen / Cara Delevingne as Margo Roth Spiegelman / Austin Abrams as Ben Starling / Justice Smith as Radar / Halston Sage as Lacey Pemberton / Jaz Sinclair as Angela / Caitlin Carver as Becca Arrington / Griffin Freeman as Jase / Cara Buono as Connie Jacobsen
Directed by Jake Schreier / Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber / Based on the book by John Green
I had great difficulty deconstructing PAPER TOWNS.
coming of age high school drama from the director of the criminally
underrated ROBOT & FRANK
and the writers of THE SPECTACULAR NOW
and THE FAULT IN OUR STARS,
two wonderfully sensitive portraits of young love.
PAPER TOWNS also has an exceptionally well-rounded cast that displays
ample and credible chemistry throughout.
The film contains individual moments of poignant honesty and,
for the most part, treats its adolescent characters with dignity and
respect as sensitive human beings, something that far too many other
similar genre films fail to do. Yet,
the overall narrative in PAPER TOWNS feels mechanical and
fabricated to the point where I simply didn’t buy what was happening,
leaving a film that was started off as something potentially profound and
then concluded with a resounding anticlimactic thud.
is all too bad, because PAPER TOWNS could have been a solid and memorable
teen film that dealt with the foibles of forming and maintaining
relationships as one grows older, but regrettably becomes an exercise in
genre artifice. The film is
the second to be adapted – after THE FAULT IN OUT STARS – from the
novels of John Green, which have be lauded in critical circles for their
grounded and authentic portrayals of young people.
I certainly can see how director Jake Schreier has attempted to
gather together his uniformly stellar cast to create rich and textured
personalities that don’t feel slavish to teen genre film clichés and
formulas. The teenagers that populate PAPER TOWNS feel real and
relatable (that, and they’re not egregiously played by 30-year-olds,
something that Hollywood does in far too much abundance). Alas, the nagging issue with PAPER TOWNS is that the story
they occupy had me asking far too many logical questions, which had the
negative side effect of making me feel at a distance with the underlining
down, PAPER TOWNS is yet another teen drama about a meek and mild mannered
nobody that loves a popular girl in school and tries to find ways of
having his love reciprocated back…albeit, this film has some twists in
this respect. The film opens
with a flashback as we meet Quentin, a young boy that develops a
friendship with a new girl that’s moved in across the street named
Margo. Like all great
childhood friendships, though, Margo and Quentin drifted apart as they
grew up and entered high school. Flashforward
to the present and Quentin (Nat Wolff) still pines after Margo (model
turned actress Cara Delevingne), but she remains aloof and barely notices
him anymore. Quentin takes
solace in the form of the bond he now shares with his BFFs Ben (Austin
Abrams) and Radar (Justin Smith), both of whom have tried to convince
their pal for years to simply move on.
steps in one night for Quentin when, out of the blue, Margo appears in his
bedroom – via his open window – and asks Quentin if he would
be her accomplice on a series of social revenge missions against friends
that have betrayed her. Of
course, Nat agrees, and during the evening the two bond in ways that they
haven’t since their childhoods.
Unfortunately for poor Nat, in the subsequent days he’s unable to
contact Margo; she’s not at school, not at home, and is not returning
his calls and texts. She has,
for all intents and purposes, vanished without a trace.
However, the sneaky and enigmatic Margo has left a series of
remarkably shrewd clues behind for Nat, which may or may not point towards
her current location. After a
series of successes and setbacks, Nat is finally able to harness his inner
Sherlock Holmes and deduce Margo’s whereabouts, so he enlists in his
buddies to make a 1200 mile road trip to seek out the woman he loves…all
right before the senior prom. He’s
cutting it close.
TOWNS is a small scale triumph on a pure level of its performances and all of the
young actors here seem adept at harnessing all of the endearing and idiosyncratic quirkiness that makes their respective characters feel so
tangible. Nat Wolff is the
clear standout here, portraying a character that’s inquisitive,
sincere, shy, and not altogether self-assured.
There’s a likeable awkwardness to Quentin here, and many critics
have bemoaned Wolff for being a bit too internalized and bland in the
role. If anything, Quentin is
guarded character that’s filled with doubt and uneasiness about his
place in the world and how Margo may fit into it, so a reserved
performance is a proper fit in this respect.
Wolff is flanked by strong supportive work by Austin Abrams and
Justin Smith, and the three of them together create a thoroughly textured
and genuine clique that really helps ground the film in a sense of
realism. So many high school
characters feel like the product of cookie-cutter screenplay factories,
but Quentin, Radar and Ben talk and act like real teens would.
real problem with PAPER TOWNS is with the character of Margo herself.
She’s introduced early on as a figure of Nat’s lifelong
infatuation, but then is removed from the story far too early on and well
before we really gain an understanding of what makes this girl tick.
Cara Delevingne does what she can with a frankly underwritten
character and imbues in her an intoxicating weirdness, but she only makes
a superficial impression of viewers and is never really developed as a
character that makes a lasting impression at all.
This, of course, led to me asking what Nat really found so alluring
in this person in the first place that would convince him to engage in a
ridiculously long journey to find her.
PAPER TOWNS is trying to be, I guess, about how young people often have
their judgment clouded by the outward perception of people, but there’s
also a darker undercurrent to the film in the sense that Nat is, when it
boils right down to it, is perpetrating irresponsible, stalkerish and
obsessive behavior. I simply
struggled with trying to deduce why Nat found this girl worthy of his
logical loopholes in the film can’t be overlooked either.
What about Margo’s parents?
There’s one brief scene when they appear to question her
disappearance, but they’re never heard from again.
And is it truly believable that Margo would leave a series of
labyrinthine clues behind for Nat to discover, some of which involve
remarkable deductive reasoning and ridiculously far-fetched connections?
That, and is it at all believable that Nat and his friends would be
able to essentially steal his family’s SUV, go on a risky trek across
the country from Orlando to New York, and then later call these same
parents to let them know what they’re up to?
How do these parents show such little concern about the wellbeing
of their children? Too much
of what happens in PAPER TOWNS feels like it exists in some laughably
twisted Bizarro version of reality. For
a film that’s trying to be grounded and genuine, PAPER TOWN feels like
borderline science fiction at times.
Even the ending of this film strains credulity. There’s nothing wrong with ambiguous movie endings. I don’t need everything spelt out to me with exactitude, but the manner that PAPER TOWNS essentially solves nothing between its main characters is deeply unsatisfying and frustrating. When all is said and done, the final moments all but undo the motivations behind Margo in the first place, leaving PAPER TOWNS feeling like pre-programmed nonsense. I didn’t despise this film, though; Nat Wolff certainly has a career ahead of him and I liked the earnestness of the actors assembled around him. They all in tandem create teen personas that are worthy of our interest. It’s just the story they’re in that’s kind of neatly packaged sentimental hogwash, leaving PAPER TOWNS a bit too paper thin for its own good.