The young-adult genre connotes certain ideas about what to expect from the genre itself. That is, as a genre responsible for selling best-sellers and those best-sellers subsequently becoming films, the mainstream young-adult avenue is one ruled by tropes that will make it successful and as a result, these are works which become formulaic. In creating a fictional novel centered on a real world, John Green’s Paper Towns and its film counterpart by the same name are filled with clichés. A few include: Quentin Johnson (Natt Wolff), the nerd outsider and protagonist, Margo Spiegelman (Cara Delevinge), the essential manic-pixie dream girl who the main character falls in love with, and most importantly, the narrative of the travel journey (more on the plot in the upcoming section) is tinged with a hip sense of what it means to be a suburban youth all in thanks to the soundtrack and the use of slow-motion to magnify and enforce the idea of being young and being in love as a cool and grand experience. Not to say that love or the idea of “love,” during one’s youth can’t be, but in Paper Towns the experience seems disingenuous, which is a shame, considering that by the end of the film, it’s more than apparent that Paper Towns is about subverting those tropes but the execution here isn’t up to par with the ideas.
Directed by Jake Schrier, Paper Towns is about high school senior Quentin “Q” Jacobsen and his romantic pursuit of his neighbor Margo. Paper Towns begins with a voice-over from Q telling us how he first fell in love with Margo when they were both young and to further cement that experience, the two shared a moment he considers intimate when they stumble upon the corpse of a dead man. From here, Q tells us how he and Margo drifted as they grew up. Q and his friends Ben (Austin Abrams) and Marcus (Justice Smith) became nerd outsiders (think Sam Weird and co. from Freaks and Geeks), while Margo became extremely infamous for her rebellious and mysterious nature. To supplement Q’s voice-over narrative, Schrier delivers a montage showing Margo’s zany adventures. Watching the montage however recalls images of a different Margo, namely the Margo played by Gwenyth Paltrow in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums.
Like the Margo in Paper Towns, Anderson’s Margo also runs away from home, goes on crazy adventures and is also romantically sought out by the male protagonist but the key difference between Anderson’s Margot and Green’s is, that while Anderson’s Margot is partly a romantic construct for those who are in love with her, she’s also real and fleshed out, because the audience gets to see her point of view on things, an element which is absent from the Margo in Paper Towns. With Q being the one and only protagonist, the narrative of Paper Towns is told from his perspective which slowly becomes an increasingly creepy and obsessive one regarding his relationship with Margo. It’s clear where Paper Towns is going from the beginning, SLIGHT SPOILERS ahead, and that is, that Margo isn’t the fantasy that the rumors surrounding her created but that she is a real person but unfortunately with a run time close to two hours and a slow-paced narrative that drags, watching Q’s personal journey of growth becomes a brutal experience filled with teenage sap and perhaps that’s because of the audience for Green’s and subsequently Schrier’s film is indeed, a teenage audience. On reviewing Mike Nichols’ The Graduate for a second time, thirty years later, Roger Ebert writes, “Great movies remain themselves over the generations; they retain a serene sense of their own identity. Lesser movies are captives of their time. They get dated and lose their original focus and power.” With a primary focus on a teenager centric narrative, Paper Towns is one such of these “lesser movies,” although with not much going for it, it doesn’t take time to see this.
The plot of Paper Towns begins when Margo’s current jock boyfriend cheats on her and she enlists Q to help her on a series of revenge pranks against her friends. At first reluctant, Q relents and the two spend the night getting revenge for Margo through juvenile pranks that offer no comedy save perhaps for one which Q himself physically participates in rather than spectate. The next day Margo disappears and while her parents wave it off as another of Margo’s antics, Q believes Margo’s disappearance to have a bigger significance, mostly in part due to the, once again, as he perceives it, “intimate” night the two spent. Margo was known for leaving clues behind as to where her next adventure would take her and Q with the assistance of his friends and later on, Margo’s best friend, Lacy (Halston Sage), spends the rest of the film collecting these clues and slowly encroaching on Margo’s whereabouts.
Q aside, there’s little endearment to be found in the rest of the cast of Paper Towns. Lacy pursues Margo with a sincerity that Q lacks but like Q, her characterization revolves around Margo. Ben plays the lowest caste member of the trio as his lack of any sexual experience leads to him fabricating lies which his friends call him out on and make fun of, making for some of the more genuine scenes in Paper Towns but Ben’s own behavior is off-putting as his only regard for women are as sexual conquests. Once again, Paper Towns is too mired in its own teenage attitude that the characters are presented as stereotypes with the intent of the film eventually breaking those stereotypes but it doesn’t take an entire two hours and a few lines of dialogue towards the end to do so. The most endearing member of the cast is by far Marcus and that might be perhaps because Marcus already has a girlfriend so Marcus feels less inclined to behave in the same juvenile manner that his two friends do.
Paper Towns is a film that clearly seeks to break some of the tropes regarding the romance sub-genre of the young-adult genre itself but in attempting to satirize itself, Paper Towns becomes mulled in its own flaws, making the film’s ending too little too late.