Paper Towns – 2015
Director Jake Schreier
Starring Nat Wolff, Austin Abrams, Justice Smith, Halston Sage, Jaz Sinclair, Cara Delevingne
Screenplay Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber based on the book by John Green
A gentle teenage road trip movie with plenty of hugging and learning, Paper Towns cloaks irresponsible and reckless behavior as mysterious and awe-inspiring. What it really is, though, is the creeping towards the limits of the talent of John Green. This book was written before his crowning achievement, the Fault in Our Stars, so any problems revealed may be just a progression. More likely though, is the search for semi-inoffensive teenager fare, they are grabbing the latest hot teen drama writer and riding him for all he is worth.
To be fair, it’s not that bad. The main character, Quentin (Wolff) is believable, and so are the satellite characters that fill out the majority of the story. They do the things that many teens would like to do: breaking barriers. That most of these barriers break in a quest for the elusive girl who gets away is perhaps the best thing. That girl, Margo Roth Spiegelman (Delevingne) is definitely the most annoying character in the story, even if she represents something that many repressed young men hope for in their teenage years. The credit of the story, we spend the most time with every other character.
The story starts with the Margo crawling into Quentin’s bedroom window at night. She takes him on an appropriately childish adventure to get revenge on some of her friends. During this time, Margo says many cryptic things and gives advice unasked for but roundly appreciated, nonetheless. To the viewer, Margo is less appealing, but it moves the story along. The next day she’s gone.
The second act begins with the quest to discover where she’s gone. While Quentin is drawn on his quest, we discover his friends Radar (Smith) and Ben (Adams) have hopes and dreams of their own. These characters are more compelling, even if they come from the typical non-jock mold. Some credit goes to some clever script tricks like a picture of one of the big jocks nude. Most of the credit belongs in casting, though. Each of the actors and their corresponding actresses (Sage and Sinclair) have a gentle approach that fits their character with a minimum of wacky hijinks.
It’s a stroke of luck that the most dreamed about character is really the most poorly drawn. The energy drains out of the screen when Margo is on-screen, and life begins again when she is a wisp of wind. This, perhaps, is the point to Green’s storytelling. Let’s hope.
Wolff has a magnetism that this reviewer first noticed in The Fault in Our Stars as the blind friend Isaac. Here he is a strong character in search of a reason for that strength. In the hands of a lesser talent, the story would have been much hampered.
Green’s storytelling is a strange combination of good choices and bad. Parents are almost non-existent. They aren’t part of the consequences of any behavior. A major part of the story involves the taking of the only family vehicle for a multi-day trip. After nearly totalling the vehicle and driving several hundred miles, he hands the keys to his friends and decides he’ll find his own way home.The next time we see mom, she’s smiling at her son as he gets dressed for prom. No telling if any of the other 4 kids’ parents missed them, either.
Most of the interactions in the world of the kids feel right, however. There isn’t the huge chasm between the beauty queen and the dweeb as the movies of the 80’s would have us believe. It is still there, though.
I will forget this film pretty soon, I think. Our twelve-year-old who read and watched The Fault in Our Stars won’t be watching this any time soon, either. It’s not a bad film at all, but characters talking about how they don’t have chlamydia “anymore” is not something we want discussed in a film described as a comedy. Or reading the book. If this makes us out of touch as parents, at least we know where our cars are.
(*** out of *****)