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As Light as Paper

20th Century Fox
 109 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Jake Schreier 
Starring: Nat Wolff, Cara Delevingne 
Paper Towns

While watching Paper Towns, the latest YA dramedy based on a novel by John Green, author of last year’s hit, The Fault in Our Stars, I was struck with a highly inappropriate thought, one that I doubt Green, director Jake Schreier, or anyone else associated with this project had in mind. Namely, as I watched free spirited, rebellious teen Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne) abruptly vanish without a trace from her comfortably upper-middle-class home, I kept thinking how, in reality, her disappearance would be far more likely to end up as an episode of Law and Order: SVU than a grand, romantic quest.


But Paper Towns, although set in Orlando, takes place in a cinematic Neverland, rather than a real world in which naïve teens with no money and no clue wind up with no future in big-city cesspools. So Quentin (Nat Wolff), the neighbor who’s been smitten by Margo since childhood and is willing to follow her to the ends of the earth, winds up with a two hour, PG-13 rated life lesson instead of a much harsher one. And the losers in this process are not Quentin and Margo, but, rather, an audience that winds up with a glossy after school special in lieu of an insightful teen drama.


Quentin, as we learn in the film’s prologue, is a rather serious student who, at one time was friends with Margo but now spends most of his days getting ready for college and hanging out in the band room with his fellow nerds Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith). That is, until one night when Margo comes back into his life through the bedroom window and asks Quentin’s help in getting revenge on her now ex-boyfriend, who’s been sleeping around on her. Quentin serves as Margo’s accomplice/getaway driver as the two pull off a series of pranks such as removing the duplicitous boyfriend’s eyebrows with Nair. The evening culminates with a romantic dance from an observation point high in an office building after a security guard friend of Margo’s lets the two in.


Then, the next morning, Margo is gone, having set off for parts unknown. Her parents aren’t worried because she’s done this before. Quentin, however, soon becomes convinced that Margo wants him to find her, as she’s left a series of clues to her whereabouts. Quentin figures out she’s gone to upstate New York, near a “paper town,” a location on a map that doesn’t exist but is put on the map for copyright protection purposes. And he recruits Ben and Radar (and their girlfriends) to accompany him on his grand quest, ditching school the week before prom to head off in search of Margo.


The screenplay for Paper Towns is by the duo of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who wrote Fault and another acclaimed teen romance, The Spectacular Now. They probably envisioned Paper Towns as a sort of whimsical romance, a teen version of Sleepless in Seattle, in which it makes perfect sense for someone to go off on a cross-country jaunt in search of true love. The screenplay is internally credible, as we learn that Margo has done this sort of thing before and enjoys scattering clues around to her whereabouts (and she obviously planned this latest trip well in advance). And I suppose that, to a moonstruck high school student, the memories of a few hours with a stunningly beautiful girl like Margo would inspire him to go off.   


However, Paper Towns never becomes the charming romance Schreier and the writers wanted it to be because they can never shake the real world. And the reality is that, at heart, the movie is about three nerds off on what proves to be one of the talkiest and dullest road trips in the history of cinematic road trips. In addition, the character that drove the fantasy is gone. The effect is similar to a version of Ferris Beuller’s Day Off in which the movie centers on Cameron’s efforts to find his friend. While she’s onscreen, the lustrous Delevingne’s charisma, like Matthew Broderick’s from the previous generation of movie teens, is enough to support the fantasy, but without her, the movie winds up in the harsh light of day.


Admittedly, The Fault in Our Stars and The Spectacular Now had their fantastic romance moments but the subject matter of those films, teen cancer and alcoholism, was serious enough, and treated seriously enough, to ground the movies and make the characters’ actions far more meaningful. Here, a better script might have looked at the real world implications of a bright but chronic runaway and a naïve boy willing to drive halfway across the country to find her, but Paper Towns never rids itself of the convenient gauzy haze that the film seems to have been shot through.


It’s perhaps unfair to compare Paper Towns to Ferris Beuller or Sleepless in Seattle. However, viewed solely on its own, the film is a bit lacking as well. Wolff is a likable young actor, bringing up visions of a younger Tom Hanks, but his character is defined by two things only, unrequited distant passion for Margo and studiousness. His friends likewise are the types of one-dimensional sidekicks usually found in movies like this. Ironically, both friends wind up having more romantic moments than does Quentin on the trip, a sign that the movie might have worked better concentrating on romances in which both parties are actually present.


Paper Towns is not a terrible movie; the basic likeability of all the actors and lack of any of the typical teen raunchy scenes mean that the audience is never really offended. That in itself is probably quite an accomplishment, considering the extended prank playing scene or another scene in which Quentin and friends attend a booze-soaked high school party. When watching it, I never looked at my watch wondering when it would end. I did however, wonder, when I was going to get the real payoff, one way or another. That moment never arrives, instead opting for some subpar learning moments along the way. Ultimately, Paper Towns proves to be paper thin, a pleasant enough way to spend two hours, but not one with any real substance to it. 

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Paper Towns (2015) on IMDb