The most uninspired YA movie in years.
Unremarkable teens panic over non-problems in Paper Towns, a flatlined adaptation of a John Green YA novel that makes The Fault In Our Stars look like an Abbas Kiarostami masterpiece. Good teen movies are about recognition, assuring awkward adolescents that the freak-outs and crushing disappointments that define their pained existences are actually totally normal and quite surmountable. But the key to making this game plan work is the same key to making all character-driven stories work: good characters. Paper Towns has none of those.
It’s nice that portraying normal-looking teens on-screen has become so fashionable as of late (the days of 35-year-old models playing high-schoolers are all but a distant memory), but for goodness’ sake, just because they look ordinary doesn’t mean they have to be the dullest kids on the block. Our proxy and narrator is Q (Nat Wolff), a well-behaved, unassuming high school senior living in suburban Orlando. He’s the kind of kid who TPs a house for the first time and considers it the wildest night of his life.
Since Q was a kid, he’s been under the spell of Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), the girl from across the street (his crush is his sole defining personality trait). They were friends in elementary school, but have grown apart as Q’s mild-mannered, obedient nature has caused the adventurous, rebellious Margo to leave him in the proverbial dust; she leads a nocturnal, untamed life while Q gets straight-As and hangs out with his buddies in the school band room. Seemingly out of the blue, Margo finally takes notice of him for the first time since they were kids and invites him out for a late-night revenge mission against her ex-boyfriend and ex-best friend. Thinking it may be his last chance to spend time with the girl of his dreams before he goes off to college, he lets go of his inhibitions, holds his breath and takes the dive.
It’s the best night of Q’s life, but he’s jerked back to reality when Margo mysteriously vanishes, leaving a trail of crafty clues in her wake. From highlighted passages in poetry books to tiny notes hidden in the easiest-to-miss places, Q obsesses over Margo’s breadcrumbs, determined to rescue her from wherever she’s run off to (her parents aren’t as concerned; she’s been known to run off for weeks at a time). Once he deciphers the clues and figures out where she’s gone, he gathers four of his equally uninteresting friends and saddles up for a road trip to find his lost love.
The plot is so unoriginal and uninspiring that I was actually aggravated watching it. The worst thing about Paper Towns isn’t that it’s poorly made or majorly flawed; it’s that it’s so humble and plain and unexciting that it saps the life out of you. It even sucks the life out of its talents. Director Jake Schreier made a charming, inventive movie in 2012 called Robot & Frank that had me excited about his forthcoming work. Alas, Paper Towns seems to only have Green’s fingerprints on it, and none of his. Wolff was a standout in Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto as a bratty, sexually abusive teen with a mean streak (he was good in The Fault In Our Stars, too), but in this movie he’s virtually impossible to pick out of a lineup of other teenage male leads.
Some scenes in Paper Towns are so uncomfortably contrived and cheesy that I scanned the theater for a moment, positive someone would get up and leave out of impatience and disgust (I had the urge myself). When Margo’s clues lead Q and company to a spooky, abandoned convenience store in the middle of the night, they start singing a song to ease their fears. They start singing the Pokémon theme song. This scene isn’t painful because of how nerdy it is (I actually quite enjoy the Pokémon video games, thank you very much), but because it’s disingenuously presented as some kind of classic coming-of-age movie moment. Simply put, it’s not funny and it’s a waste of time.
When you boil Paper Towns down, it’s about a boy who learns to let go of lofty idealizations and appreciate what he’s got right under his nose. It’s actually not a bad life lesson to base a movie on, but the movie Schreier’s built around it is so unambitious that it’s hard to absorb the message, considering the mind-numbingly boring the road to get there is. Like its hero, Paper Towns needs to grow some balls.