Movie Review: "Paper Towns"

Forgive the slightly different format today, this was originally intended for elsewhere…

There is a common theory that teenage boys (and many men in general) only need a pretty girl to smile at them to make them turn into a complete and utter fool. Whether the theory is true or not, the latest John Green adaptation, Paper Towns, relies heavily on it.

Nat Wolff stars as Quentin, a high school senior who has harbors a crush on the girl across the street, Margo (Cara Delevingne), from the moment she first moves in. Friends at first, over the course of 11 years the two grow apart, but Quentin’s unrequited love continues and then, on one fateful night, Margo drags him with her on an revenge-based escapade. He thinks it means something about their future; she disappears the next day, her fifth time running away.

The rest of the movie is then Quentin and his friends—Radar (Justice Smith) and Ben (Austin Abrams)—searching for Margo, uncovering clues she has left behind about where she may have gone, and dealing with their own problems surrounding the impending end of high school. For the most part it is a strictly run of the mill coming of age tale, one that has been done better.

Quentin and his friends are convinced that Margo has essentially issued Quentin a challenge – if he solves the mystery of where she went and thereby proves his love, the two can live happily ever after. The chase for these clues starts out rather well and offers high hopes for what is to follow. However, each subsequent clue becomes more improbable, more foolish, and less interesting. It is a mystery that could really explore Margo or Quentin or life in general, but instead turns into an overly slow, terribly drawn out affair with nothing to offer besides an ever more clear understanding that Margo is not some ideal but rather a petulant teenager, one even her parents decide not to go hunting.

It is worth noting with this last bit that the movie does point out that Margo’s parents aren’t good ones, but there is no evidence of this whatsoever. It is a tossed off remark required of the film because if her parents were on the case, Quentin wouldn’t have to be.

With the clues perhaps solved and her parents still missing in action, Quentin is off on a road trip with Ben, Radar and his girlfriend (Jaz Sinclair), and a friend of Margo’s (Halston Sage). For a movie that tries to trade on its real-world sensibilities and character-types, the road trip is dealt with in a farcical manner, particularly when it comes to informing (or not) parents about what they’re doing, and doing hurriedly so that they can make it back to prom in time. Any high schooler who absconds in this manner can probably expect to be grounded for the dance.

Paper Towns would have the audience believe that it is breaking stereotypes, deconstructing myths about the types of people one finds in a typical high school. To some extent that may occur, but it never goes any further than any of the other high school movies that have come before it. The attractive girl has a brain; the goofball has a sensitive side; the average, every kid, learns something about the world and grows into adulthood; and yes, there’s a nod to diversity as well.

One can map out much of the movie after the first five minutes. That is, naturally, disappointing, but worse, one can sometimes tell when something unexpected is going to happen because Paper Towns switches from the conventional camera angles it regularly uses to odd, distinctive ones. Director Jake Schreier loses at least two good surprises by telegraphing them in this manner.

Despite all these shortcomings, Paper Towns repeatedly gives the sense that it is on the cusp of something better, on the verge of managing to overcome these easy characters and old story. It just never quite makes it over the hump, instead settling for sheepish grins and a pseudo-intellectual discussion (see the talk surrounding the definition of a “paper town,” which is a place on a map that doesn’t exist in the real world) that seems calculated to have current high schoolers and recent grads readily identify themselves and swoon over their big screen avatars.


With a pointless search and stock characters, this coming of age drama leaves a lot to be desired. Nat Wolff and the rest of the very charming cast almost make it work, and Paper Towns is constantly on the verge of transcending all of its shortcomings. But, with a quest that becomes silly and ever more removed from reality, and with a goal that the movie makes questionable at best, it just doesn’t work.

photo credit: 20th Century Fox

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