24 July 2015 | StevePulaski
Exactly what it shouldn't be - a paper film with paper characters and paper themes
"Paper Towns" is that kid in the lunchroom who acts different and seems cool but it isn't until you talk to him that you realize he adheres to all the social conventions and routines of life that you thought he was rebelling against. It's the kind of film that feels like it was written by an adolescent girl cherrypicking reblogged Tumblr quotes from her wall to suffice as the theme for the film. It's the kind of film you'll love if you find the idea of "getting lost to find yourself" a profound concept.
"Paper Towns," finally, is the kind of film where the love interest is named Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), whose vacuous personality is mistaken for mystery and enigma. She is defined by her absent gazes into the world, her love for "random capitalization" in her writing because "the rules are so unfair to the letters in the middle of words," and her statements about her town, Orlando, Florida, being a paper town with "paper houses and paper people."
She also happens to be the apple of Quentin's (the former "Naked Brothers Band" lead singer Nat Wolff) eye since she moved in his subdivision when they were young; he considers living next to her his sole miracle in life. However, the two have significantly drifted since their youthful days of innocence, until one night when Margo climbs into his window and says that she has nine things to do that night and needs a getaway driver. Stunned that the love of his life has waltzed through his window for the first time in years, Quentin takes Margo and peels off in his minivan to exact revenge on Margo's cheating boyfriend and her friends who didn't help her in her time of need.
Upon having the greatest night of his life, Quentin wakes up the next morning and sees Margo isn't at school that day, and eventually, notices she's missing the entire week. Her parents aren't concerned, for Margo does this a lot, but Quentin and his friends - the incessant Ben (Austin Abrams) and the geeky "Radar" (Justice Smith) - begin to uncover clues as to why Margo may have disappeared and where to. With that, the three teens, including Margo's best friend Lacey (Halston Sage) and Radar's girlfriend Angela (Jaz Sinclair), try to track down her whereabouts.
"Paper Towns"'s immediate problem is it's nowhere as intelligent or witty as it thinks it is. Its themes are all rehashed to the point of breeding contempt and its characters, particularly Margo, are so broadly drawn that they work against the film, which is clearly trying to breathe that fabled freshness into the teen film genre (it always feels like Quentin's going to stop the film with his narration saying the dreaded "this isn't your average teen movie" line).
Strangely, though, the most contemptible character throughout this whole film is Margo for more reasons than her empty personality. She's the kind of person who thinks it's okay to drop her friends and family without giving them any inkling as to what's wrong with her because she's trying to find herself. Finally, when somebody does something for her, particularly Quentin, she takes it with a grain of salt and goes about selfishly trying to advance herself rather than consider what she means to others. She's on the verge of growing up and being Amy Schumer's Amy character from "Trainwreck," a contemptible, lost soul who takes advantage of people she meets.
Furthermore, the humor of "Paper Towns" is another thing that's frustrating. One moment, the film is trying to wow you with a "deep" dialogue about what lies beneath the surface of people, and the next, a character accidentally spills a can in which he urinated into all over himself and his friends. Once more, this is a film that's trying to be one thing but can't escape what it ultimately is: trite, frequently immature, and mostly empty exercise that has nothing revolutionary to say despite thinking it does.
However, don't fault the cast here, for they clearly give it their best shot. Their energy and charisma bring to life more than writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (who wrote "The Spectacular Now," a film you should see instead of this one) do. Nat Wolff, an actor I've consistently admired for his good-natured, everyboy appearance and personality, does strong work here in that realm and is assisted by capable performers like Smith and Sage (Delevingne would likely be better if she had a character to play).
"Paper Towns" is cut from the same cloth as "The Fault in Our Stars" (author John Green, who wrote the book on which this film is based, also wrote that one and Neustadter and Weber also penned that screenplay) in that it tries to take a different direction for its adolescent characters but crumbles under the lackluster deviations from reality it so often takes. On top of that, unlike "The Fault in Our Stars," which was burdened by sentimentality and cringeworthy attempts at a perceived coolness, "Paper Towns" winds up being precisely what it didn't want to be - a paper film.