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