Movie Review: ‘Paper Towns’
[photo: 20th Century Fox]
Little more than a year after The Fault in Our Stars vacuumed up gobs of money, along comes another adaptation of a novel by YA titan John Green. Paper Towns the book actually came out four years before Fault the book, but Fault was Green’s first big hit, and so now studios are scrambling for that sweet, sweet teen money. In a YA landscape dominated by fantasy and post-apocalyptic sci-fi, Green’s “for the feels,” allegedly normal-people-based stories have proven a viable alternative. To me, though, that’s only resulted in films that are just as grating as the latest Hunger Maze or whatever — though for different reasons.
The film follows Quentin “Q” Jacobsen (Nat Wolff), a boring high schooler living in continual awe of his next-door neighbor, Margo Roth Spiegelman (a really weird Green “thing” is how his female protagonists keep getting referred to by their full names). Margo (Cara Delevingne) randomly capitalizes letters in her writing, is liable to disappear for weeks at a time to go on adventures, is given to ironically faux-eloquent turns of phrase, and pulls weird pranks like leaving dead fish in people’s closets. She’s horrible, in other words — a mountain of phony hipness manufactured by adults with only a vague idea of what passes for anti-establishment cred among today’s youth. Fortunately, she mostly disappears from the movie after a half hour or so. After that, the plot concentrates on Q’s obsessive quest to find out where she went to, following what he believes to be clues she left behind for him.
There’s an odd schism in Paper Towns’ psyche. The movie ultimately builds to the message that people are people, not legends or dreams or what have you, and that it’s unhealthy to idealize anyone the way Q idealizes Margo. Which is a good thing to tell the teens at which the film is aimed, particularly the more sensitive, bookish ones who are prone to indulging their imaginations a bit too much. But for much of its running time, Paper Towns is also working on much more generic ideas about living in the moment and not blending in with the crowd and other assembly-line teen fiction themes. We’re meant to learn Margo is just a girl, and yet her example still inspires the milquetoast Quentin to be more. Despite the movie’s lip service towards there being a greater depth to Margo, it suspiciously avoids any attempt to actually grant her that depth. She shows up at the end to tell Quentin that she’s not what he thinks she is, yet all we’re left knowing about her is a collection of annoying quirks.
And Margo’s the flashiest “type” in a story made of nothing but types. Quentin is the vacuous protagonist onto whom viewers are expected to project themselves. His friends are generic band nerds. A girl who comes into their circle is The Hot Popular One Who’s Totally Got More Going On In Her Head, Seriously. They declare their characterizations in awkwardly-motivated dialog rather than through action. Or Quentin’s omnipresent narration (the archetypical lazy crutch of YA right now) tells us exactly what the audience needs to know or how to feel. Nothing is asked of the actors, and little is given.
This all might feel more honest as a subversion of teen dream girl stories if it felt anything like what it was supposed to be in the first place. But it’s a flat experience. The disconnect is vast between the supposed gravitas of what the characters are experiencing and those scenes’ actual emotional resonance. A road trip which is said to be life-changing is depicted as one instance of a guy peeing in a beer can, one manic trip to a gas station store, and one close encounter with a cow. That’s it.
Paper Towns has the special kind of uninspired (yes, I know that’s an oxymoron, but bear with me here) filmmaking that seems part and parcel of YA adaptations. The book is the king, and the director, writer, actors, editors, cinematographers, etc, are all here solely to translate it from page to screen — adding nothing to it in the process. And why should they? The studio knows it can count on the considerable fanbase for Green’s books to show up. And what more will those viewers ask for, besides a visualization of something they already love? Nothing. Which is what you get from this movie.
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