Author John Green’s popularity amongst the Young Adult fiction and YouTube-lovers of the world owes not just to his canny understanding of their overlap, but also the emotional tenor of the particular generation they’ve been embraced by. Screenwriting duo Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have found similar success in film, with collaborations on (500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now resulting in two of the most adored young romance dramedies of the last decade. By their powers combined, last year’s The Fault in Our Stars garnered positive reviews and (more importantly) $300 million in box office receipts. Paper Towns, an adaptation of an earlier Green novel, fits comfortably within the same wheelhouse as TFiOS, but makes for a bumpier ride, as one might expect a teen romance/mystery/road trip movie to be.
Early on in the film, stars Nat Wolff (who had an endearing supporting turn in Fault) and Cara Delevingne (making her debut as a lead actress) are looking over an Orlando night’s skyline from inside an office building. As shot by director Jake Schreier, the scene can’t help but recall the ending of Fight Club, a film now old enough that anyone born at the time of its release will be right within Paper Towns’ target demographic.
How times have changed: where Fight Club capped off its exploration of teen-courting nihilism with explosions and Pixies, Paper Towns has its two leads share an unironic slow dance to a muzak cover of “Lady in Red.” As with Green, Neustadter, and Weber’s other works, “cool” isn’t a sliding scale, but a circle, where dorky self-confidence just has to be sincere enough to loop back around into being chic. It’s a nice sentiment, but one that’s more difficult to expose beneath the traditional, if pretty absurd coming-of-age story that Paper Towns spends most of its time pretending to be.
Wolff plays Quentin Jacobsen, a spindly high school senior who’s been in love with cool girl next door Margo (Delevingne) since they were both kids. “Everyone gets one miracle, and Margo was mine,” Quentin opines in the opening narration, the sort of nakedly unhip sentiment that Green has made a fortune off of, but also served as the foundation for the similarly earnest, totally disastrous romantic fantasy Winter’s Tale. Paper Towns doesn’t go so far as to include a flying horse and demon Russell Crowe, but gets about as ridiculous as non-genre YA fiction can allow.
One night, Quentin acts as hesitant accomplice to Margo’s revenge spree against high school frenemies, making him a part of one of the “epic adventures” this ultimate It-Girl has spent her life inspiring. Margo is brave, clever, and unrestrained in her actions, even if Quentin only sees in her a beautiful mystery. When Margo goes missing the next day, Quentin stumbles upon a breadcrumb trail convincing him that his Manic Pixie Gone Girl has challenged him to come and find her.
Unlike The Fault in Our Stars, it seems easier to distinguish the authorial voices in Paper Towns. Quentin’s ramshackle goose chase is loosely strung along by clues stitched together with the same quirky fluff that defines many of Green’s characters. As Quentin’s best friends, Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith) get oddball bits of backstory each, but mainly exist to make Quentin look less geeky by comparison, or creepy in his long-standing obsession with Margo. After enough casual scenes of the three goofing around or confronting their approaching graduation, Paper Towns eventually makes each more complex than a John Hughes riff. Neustadter, Weber, and Schreier do well by the chemistry of the leading losers, even if their development mainly owes to female characters that the film only gives lip service to as individuals.
As the hunt for Margo takes Quentin’s gang across town and on the road, Paper Towns weaves its earnestness through a mess of a plot. Cleanly composed and soundtrack-heavy, Paper Towns looks and sounds like a 110-minute trailer, with catchphrase-y bon mots and observations doled out accordingly. Cameos from YA regulars make the movie a Shailene Woodley away from going full-on Avengers. It’s the light and playful moments of carefree youth that prove more charming than the logical leaps Paper Towns has to make in order to drive its mystery and message home. Green’s respect for the emotional integrity of his audience doesn’t come with as high of expectations for when they’ll call B.S. on contrived storytelling, an often-obnoxious protagonist in Quentin, and a wooden performance from Delevingne.
Yet Green wouldn’t be the success that he is unless he knew when to use, and when to subvert genre standards. How Paper Towns gets to its climax is sloppy, but the result is a finale that gives the impression you’ve watched a movie that’s much more perceptive than the preceding 100 minutes let on. Not all of the above issues are absolved in these last ten minutes, but the movie’s more apparent flaws are far more interesting to consider in light of Green’s valuable final takeaway. At the very least, you’ll leave Paper Towns assured it had a brain in its head, not just a heart on its sleeve.
A strong finish does a lot to smooth out the rougher edges found in Paper Towns.