Movie Review: Paper Towns
By Ben Gruchow
July 29, 2015

She always looks like she has better places to be.

Paper Towns is an unpleasant and faintly narcissistic experience about two self-involved, overprivileged teens playing mind games, while the story is convinced they’re learning about life and love. There is some faint redemption by supporting actors giving convincing life to characters with more shading and dimension than the principals, but there’s not enough.

I am not a fan of the source novel, written by John Green and fast-tracked into production after the box-office success of 2014’s The Fault In Our Stars. I found it to be an exercise in how thoroughly a capable writer can torpedo his own concept: overwritten, banal, obsessed with its own cleverness. If nothing else, the film is a faithful adaptation. The central, mysterious character of Margo Roth Spiegelman, who sets most of the movie’s wispy plot in motion, is an unlikable objectification of teen angst. She’s also a bully, unbalanced, manipulative in a callous way. The protagonist, Quentin Jacobsen, is a cipher who is all too willing to jump ship on the rest of his life in order to obsessively track Margo down; she up and disappears one day, and the reaction by her parents and Quentin’s friends suggests that they know something he doesn’t.

Most of the movie’s middle section consists of Quentin discovering clues as to Margo’s potential whereabouts - clues that she ostensibly left herself, with such elaborate setups and references that you wonder how she possibly had the energy afterward to actually abscond. This middle section is flabby in its construction, and introduces two rather critical issues. The first has more to do with the source material: Green’s characters are overwritten, but there’s also a thread of condescension that manifests as overly-precious pop-culture references and left-field plot devices.

Walt Whitman and Woody Guthrie are sewn into developments and asides, but they’re never used to influence thought or action on the part of the characters; the script is just name-dropping and mistaking it for texture and color. Articulation in speech can convey hidden layers of personality and meaning, or it can be deployed effectively as an illustration of a defense mechanism; here, it just comes across as the mark of a writer desperately trying to show that he’s hip to the kids these days, with the touch-screens and the Facebook and the Wikipedia (manifested here, in the movie’s worst display of winking at itself, as an identical site called Omnictionary.)

Quentin is the least-interesting character on screen; his evident purpose in life begins and ends with obsessing about Margo’s whereabouts and nature. The people surrounding him are more fortunate: Halston Sage, as Margo’s best friend Lacey, brings a confusion and realism to her scenes that she doesn’t try to oversell. She’s the only one affected by Margo’s departure who actually seems to react like a person. Meanwhile, Justice Smith is downright natural and likable as Quentin’s friend Radar; he has a nice grasp of timing and feeling that serves him well during scenes with his girlfriend, played with equal unforced naturalism by Jaz Sinclair, and during late scenes with Quentin, Lacey, and their friend Ben, played by Austin Abrams (this actor pulls a fast one on a thin character, and emerges with something like sympathy and an arc). Nat Wolff’s Quentin has far more chemistry with any of these individuals than he does with Cara Delevingne’s Margo, and the degree to which the movie works depends on how far away the main characters are kept.

There are moments where the film seems to insinuate that it knows this, and that it’s part of the point: it can be inadvisable or even dangerous to assign motivation and layers of your own identity to a different person, one that you don’t even really know. The movie doesn’t do anything with this concept, though. It’s too concerned with executing the mechanics of Green’s plot to make time for much thematic exploration, and the mechanics of the plot hold no surprises or insights.

With the most interesting characters relegated to the background, we’re more or less forced to consider the weight of the Quentin-Margo story - and really, it’s the Quentin story, with how much time Delevingne spends off-screen. In the time she is onscreen, she’s mean-spirited and pushy. We’re never given anything substantive to latch onto about her character, so we never understand exactly what it is that anyone sees in her, and the screenplay for Paper Towns is too slight to do more than faintly suggest the dangers of putting people on a pedestal who don’t deserve to be.

We thus spend much of the movie focused on Quentin’s face, as he’s tasked with doing the majority of the heavy lifting, and the casting of Wolff to do this is a fatal miscalculation. Every good performance in a film ultimately comes down to the eyes; you get the true measure of an actor’s character commitment from this. For all of its storytelling sins, The Fault in Our Stars was brought quite close to success by that depth of feeling from Shailene Woodley. Wolff, though, brings an unsettling blank gaze to every shot he’s in. He’s remarkably consistent: never once did I even come close to convinced that Quentin actually means (or knows how to mean) any of the things he says or does. The intonation is sort of there, and the expressions are sort of there, but it all falls through because of that vacancy behind the eyes.

At points, it actually crosses the line between a bad job of conveying a teenager and a good job of conveying a psychopath. When you start worrying less about whether or not the main character is going to find the girl of his dreams, and more about what he’s going to do to her once he finds her (or to others if they get in his way), it should be taken as a sign that the lead actor isn’t hitting quite the notes he expected to.

Cinematically, the movie is a big nothing: directed by newcomer Jake Schreier with timidity and lassitude, flatly and anonymously shot, written with the minimal amount of connect-the-dots storytelling. It takes a precise touch and confident acting and writing to really earn a story like this. There’s a 2012 film out there called The Perks of Being A Wallflower. It covers similar thematic territory, is much better written, and has genuine humor and pathos. It takes risks with our sympathy toward its characters, but never loses track of why we have it. Paper Towns is a pale imitation, and a thin piece of plastic even on its own terms.