Dir: Jake Schreier, 2015
Ever since Quentin ‘Q’ Jacobsen was a child, his mystery-obsessed neighbour Margo Roth Spiegelman fascinated him. Therefore Q is thrilled when, shortly before he’s about to graduate high school with straight A’s, Margo unexpectedly knocks on his window and enlists him in getting revenge on her deserving ex-boyfriend. After a night of pranks and pensiveness that Q will never forget, Margo disappears, leaving behind a trail of clues that Q and his friends will follow in what will be their last adventure before college.
Paper Towns is the latest interpretation of a novel by young adult author John Green, who hit it big a few years ago with New York Times bestseller The Fault in our Stars and its subsequent film adaptation in which two cancer-stricken teenagers fall in love. Green is a professed advocate of relatable, three-dimensional teenage characters and many of his readers laud his works for those exact reasons. Unfortunately Paper Towns is an exhibition of paper-thin characters that spend their days idly stargazing and spouting unspeakable dialogue that no human being would ever legitimately give voice to.
The euphoric dreamscape in which Paper Towns exists is called Orlando, Florida. Margo, played by model-turned-actress Cara Delevingne, is the long lost eighth member of Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven and a “big believer in random capitalisation”. We’re introduced to Margo at a young age as she spots a corpse in the street, gun-in-hand, of a man who has committed suicide. The preteen Margo creeps closer and muses on the gaping eyes of the dead man. My informed expectations of genuine, empathetic characters were dashed and I realised Green is both trying to have his cake and ram it down his throat.
Our protagonist and, regrettably, our narrator is Nat Wolff, who turned several heads with his supporting role in TFioS. Despite his enthusiasm Wolff is grotesquely miscast as the supposedly nerdy, socially awkward Q. Abound with boyish good looks and sophistication, Wolff doesn’t possess the witty sense of self-deprecation needed to pull off such a character in the ways that John Cusack or Joseph Gordon-Levitt have. Yet Wolff still stands head and shoulders above the rest of his supporting cast who appear to have been plucked from the Nickelodeon gene pool.
The novel of Paper Towns was written before TFioS and adapted to film afterwards which suggests a retroactive cashing-in on anything Green – a theory that the finished product doesn’t contradict. Paper Towns’ narrative drifts from one liberating night with Margo to a convoluted Scooby-Doo mystery to a formulaic road trip and the characters follow suit without any motivation that precludes the novel’s three-tier structure. Even the array of talent behind the camera seems to have shown up for the paycheck and YA fandom. Director Jake Schreier carries with him none of the charm from his debut 2012 feature Robot & Frank while seasoned screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber ditch any wit or fidelity demonstrated previously in the duo’s scripts for (500) Days of Summer or The Spectacular Now.
Paper Towns is an attempted dismantling of the manic pixie dream girl cliché but loses its soul in the translation of the text, ultimately reinforcing the conventions it initially set out to refute. Its messages are muddled, its cast incompetent and the plot wearisome enough for me to wish cancer would rear its ugly head, if at least to boost the mortality rate for a few of the characters.