Film Review: ‘Paper Towns’

paper-towns-cara-delevingne-nat-wolff
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

The second John Green adaptation in as many years is a less tearjerking, more affecting teen drama than 'The Fault in Our Stars.'

The title of “Paper Towns” refers to a trick that cartographers use to keep their maps from being copied by competitors. But it also describes, in a less literal sense, that brand of suburban disillusionment where everything and everyone in life seems phony, stifling and two-dimensional — a condition to which some sensitive teenagers can be especially susceptible. If it’s authenticity these young adults seek, they could do far worse than this second film drawn from a John Green bestseller (after last year’s hit “The Fault in Our Stars”): It may not subvert every cliche of the high-school romance genre, but director Jake Schreier’s coming-of-age dramedy nonetheless pulses with moving and melancholy moments as it follows a 17-year-old boy who spends an unforgettable night with the girl of his dreams, then decides to pursue her when she suddenly leaves town the next day.

Athough it shares several producers, a writing team (Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber) and an actor (Nat Wolff) with Josh Boone’s adaptation of “The Fault in Our Stars,” Schreier’s film seems unlikely to match its predecessor’s runaway commercial success ($307 million worldwide). Which is a bit of a shame, insofar as “Paper Towns” turns out to be the better movie — less tearjerking and more affecting, and populated by characters who are presented not as paragons of cancer-riddled virtue, but rather as flawed, ordinary young individuals who are touchingly vulnerable to the social pressures and sexual anxieties of contemporary teenage life. That’s true even of those who try to rise above (or sink below) it all, like Quentin Jacobson (Wolff), a high-school senior in Orlando, Fla., who has long since absorbed the perks of being a wallflower. He’s a good student, shy but not irredeemably awkward, and utterly disinterested in going to prom, unlike his two best friends, the smart, self-conscious Radar (Justice Smith) and the goofy, perpetually horny Ben (Austin Abrams).

But Quentin is a romantic at heart, having nursed a longtime crush on his beautiful next-door neighbor, Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), who used to climb in through his bedroom window when they were kids — a habit she dropped around the time she became the most popular girl in school. So it’s something of a blast from the past when she appears one night and asks him to chauffeur her around the neighborhood while she takes care of some pressing business. Figuring what the hell, Quentin becomes Margo’s accomplice over a long and crazy night of revenge against those friends who have betrayed her. Whether they’re busting her cheating b.f. (Griffin Freeman), practicing some strategic hair removal on a hated jock (R.J. Shearer), or wrapping a girlfriend’s car in plastic, their pranks leave Quentin feeling alive in a way he rarely has. He also finds himself falling more in love than ever with Margo, a tougher, more independent-minded girl than you’d expect from her high-school queen-bee status.

That Margo is something of a mystery becomes even more apparent the next day, when she runs away from home — not for the first time, according to her blithely indifferent mother (Susan Macke Miller). But Quentin is bent on finding her, especially after he stumbles on what appears to be a trail of clues that she left behind — a Woody Guthrie poster here, a message in an abandoned mini-mall there — and that will lead him to a real-life “paper town” where she may have taken up temporary residence. Tagging along for this unplanned road trip are Ben, Radar and his g.f., Angela (Jaz Sinclair), and popular girl Lacey Pemberton (Halston Sage), who’s worried about what might have happened to Margo. Yet the group’s concern takes on conflicting shades as Quentin’s determination begins to tilt into obsession, and he learns firsthand the dangers of idealizing someone he doesn’t really know, while taking for granted the ones he does.

Despite the movie’s puzzle-like structure, Schreier (who directed the 2012 Sundance fave “Robot & Frank”) keeps “Paper Towns” recognizably steeped in the common rituals of young adulthood, which is to say the well-worn conventions of so much teen cinema. There are house parties and pop quizzes, locker-side confrontations and urine accidents, plus some raunchy talk about hot moms and sexually transmitted diseases. Large quantities of beer are consumed and disgorged, and parental supervision is pretty minimal. Quentin and his friends play out their adventures against a wall-to-wall indie-rock soundtrack that proves overly insistent yet undeniably effective, catching us up in a swirl of emotion as the characters make their way up the East Coast and back, all en route to a moving prom-night climax.

But if “Paper Towns” can seem a touch familiar, it rarely feels pro forma. Neustadter and Weber’s largely faithful adaptation strikes a nice balance between the hyper-eloquence of Green’s dialogue and the natural rhythms of everyday teenspeak, and they keep up a steady stream of low-key, character-driven humor — including one priceless, regionally specific sight gag that feels even more pointed now than it would have a month earlier. And while the production might well have benefited from a richer, more varied sense of place (Charlotte, N.C., stood in for both Orlando and upstate New York), what distinguishes Schreier’s work here is his ability to sustain a bittersweet mood of anticipation and regret, as his characters struggle to take hold of the fleeting, ungraspable moment. Whether it’s focusing on Radar’s sweet, nervous courtship of Angela, or the unexpected bond that forms between Ben and Lacey, this tale of self-discovery stays true to Green’s poignant message that people are always more complicated than the neat identities we try to assign them.

Bearing out that theme most of all are the film’s young actors, all of whom get the opportunity to reveal more than one dimension of character. Wolff, who’s present in just about every scene, manages to hold the center as a young man who isn’t overly concerned about either standing out or fitting in, and whose behavior can often be as hesitant as it is impulsive. But the real find here is Delevingne, an English actress who, with her subtly smoky voice and piercing gaze, makes the girl of Quentin’s fantasies a singularly charismatic presence, all the more so due to her limited screen time. What ultimately happens to Margo may seem somewhat ambiguous by film’s end, but on the evidence of her work here, this striking actress is here to stay.

Film Review: 'Paper Towns'

Reviewed at Fox Studios, Century City, Calif., July 2, 2015. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 109 MIN.

Production

A 20th Century Fox release of a Fox 2000 Pictures presentation of a Temple Hill production. Produced by Wyck Godfrey, Marty Bowen. Executive producers, John Green, Isaac Klausner, Nan Morales, Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber.

Crew

Directed by Jake Schreier. Screenplay, Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber, based on the book by John Green. Camera (color, widescreen), David Lanzenberg; editors, Jacob Craycroft, Jennifer Lame; music, Ryan Lott; music supervisor, Season Kent; production designer, Chris Spellman; art director, Jamie Walker McCall; set decorator, Summer Eubanks; set designers, David Blankenship, Joseph Feld; costume designer, Mary Claire Hannan; sound, Jeffree Bloomer; supervising sound editor, Mildred Iatrou Morgan; re-recording mixers, Andy Nelson, Jim Bolt; special effects coordinator, Larry Bivins; special effects, Tony Cooke; visual effects supervisor, Jake Braver; visual effects, Phosphene, Savage Visual Effects; stunt coordinators, Cal Johnson, John Cooper, Marcelle Coletti; associate producer, Jeffrey Harlacker; assistant directors, Lisa C. Satriano, Shelley Ziegler; second unit director, Darrin Prescott; second unit camera, Lukasz Jogalla; casting, Ronna Kress.

With

Nat Wolff, Cara Delevingne, Halston Sage, Austin Abrams, Justice Smith, Jaz Sinclair, Cara Buono, Griffin Freeman, Susan Macke Miller.

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  1. Rebecca says:

    Shame you don’t live in the real world. The Fault in our stars and Paper Towns are two very different pieces of work and to compare one to the other is bloody ridiculous. Also saying Paper Towns is the better movie because none of its characters are riddled with cancer, is highly offensive. You are a bloody idiot.

    • Jeremy says:

      Yeah, so that is not even close to what he said, if you actually care to read the article. The reviewer is saying that Paper Towns is the better movie because it has more complexity to it’s character development, which was something that TFIOS lacked. And you can most certainly compare the two movies to one another; they are in fact quite similar in both their presentation and themes, based on the Paper Towns trailers.

      • I have only seen Paper Towns, but I find it hard to believe that the characters in TFIOS could be any less complex than those in Paper Towns (judging from the critical acclaim of TFIOS). The characters in Paper Towns were not complex at all and rather uncompelling. Margo seemed like a self-absorbed bitch, and it made no sense that he would fall in love with her, much less go to NY for her, after hanging out with her for one night after years of not talking to her. Then, his other friends seriously just left him there in the paper town in NY??? Totally unbelievable and goes against any previous character traits they had developed. Very few things about this movie made sense. After I watched, I just had to wonder to myself “why? What is the point of anything that I just watched?” It was a pointless movie, largely because its characters were so bland and fake.

  2. CMS says:

    JUSTICE SMITH PLAYED RADAR, NOT JAZ SINCLAIR. JAZ PLAYED ANGELA

  3. Very great review! I loved TFiOS, but I do think Paper Towns is going to be a lot better. For one, I really like that there are more teenagers involved, whereas TFiOS only had three teen main characters. And aside from finding Margo, all these characters (minus Quentin, who’s made it his prime mission) have their own things going on that they’re busy with–like Ommictionary, black Santas, honeybunnies, prom! Also, with Paper Towns, there’s a mix of romance, comedy, mystery and drama, unlike TFiOS, which was mostly sad, more than anything else. I’m going to Night On the Towns and I’m so excited! :D This movie is going to be AMAZING. And Radar is played by Justice Smith, not Jaz Sinclair :) (But I did laugh at that, haha!)

    • First of all, I am not lying. AT ALL. I have absolutely no reason to, I get nothing out of it. And second, no one loves everything. I don’t love everything. But yes, I am a fan of both TFiOS and Paper Towns. Believe it or not, many people are–so I guess they’re insincere liars like me, right? Your opinion of me couldn’t be any more irrelevant and you can hate me all you want, but I just wanted to put this out there. It’s one thing to voice your perspective/thoughts of things in a respective and mature manner. But you’re just here harrassing people. Is this what you like to take time out of your day to do?

  4. geekgirl says:

    Correction: Radar is played by Justice Smith.

  5. This movie sounds wonderful! I’m so looking forward to it. John Green and Jake Schrier along with the rest of the crew made a terrific, romantic movie. The themes are very relevant for contemporary teenagers. :)

    • Captain Metropolis says:

      First you say you’re looking forward to it, then you note that it’s a terrific movie. Could you be perhaps be pre-sold on a film you haven’t even seen?

      • Alexandra Keleti says:

        It’s true, I am pre-sold on the film. The trailer and the interview clips with the actors expose exciting parts of action scenes and make clear major themes of the movie. It’s enough to show the movie will appeal to large audiences and achieve more great reviews.

      • schmit1993 says:

        The fault in our stars is what they are referring to

  6. Scarface says:

    Lol can Hollywood stop adapting novels, biopics, comics , video games etc instead of coming up with fresh & original ideas?

    • Guest says:

      Who’s forcing you to watch these adapted films?

      • Mantle Head says:

        He has a point… no one forces anyone to watch H/wood movies; but some original IP would be nice… won’t happen, but these movies suck the originality incentive from screenwriting (who can write a great piece of original IP in script form; and I am not talking about in-house development stuff… where is the incentive to write something original: not there; so the art form is suffering: all s/writers write the same crap: make a living… if a studio won’t develop their own IP the craft of screenwriting is the big loser- and audiences of course).

        So it does have an affect.

    • Daniels says:

      Hollywood has adapting books, biopics, etc. for the very beginning. If you don’t like it then don’t watch it. It’s not rocket science.

  7. cadavra says:

    I hate to be a pedant, but it seems unlikely that Jaz Sinclair plays both Radar and Angela. Which is it?

    • Mantle Head says:

      It’s a very modern teenage fable, one actor transitions to another… and Jenner makes a Cameo as a sex consultant: very modern, relevant to the irrelevant (teenagers, you know…).

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