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