Paper Towns is to the young adult adaptations what Man of Steel was to the comic book adaptations. Both of these movies feature unrealistic and uninspired stories as well as weak characters and a general sense that the people behind it all cared very little about doing service to the original material. As Man of Steel did two years before, Paper Towns decides to compensate for its laziness by acting like all that it says is a work of art despite it saying absolutely nothing. The movie throws hollow quirky nonsense and embarrassingly pretentious dialogue at you in the hopes that you’ll somehow come out of this thinking you have just looked at something that is absolutely brilliant. This movie not only fails to trick its audience but it also makes the experience that much more nauseating. An empty, uninspired movie is one thing but to then act as though it just painted the Mona Lisa is an arrogance that exists on a whole other level. I can’t think of anyone who won’t be able to at least at some level look through the cheap smoke and mirrors act Paper Towns puts on.
To the films credit, with a basic storyline like this one, I can’t imagine it was that difficult for the directors and writers to stoop into pretension. Q (yep, that’s what they call him) is a teenage boy whose about to head out to college. He always does the right thing and he wants to get good grades instead of slacking off. I know right, what a terrible person. The movie clearly wants him to be more like his next door neighbor Margot, a rebellious and mysterious girl who he rarely gets to talk to. She always goes missing and she always leaves behind these cutesy little clues for the people she wants to find her. One time she goes off to the circus and another time she leaves behind clues using alphabet soup. Are you curious how she managed to do those two things? Be prepared for a lot more of this flashy nonsense that we’re supposed to be impressed by without taking any further looks.
After years of not talking to each other, Margot needs a getaway driver to help her perform a series of ridiculous, nonsensical revenge plots. They share a night of dancing to elevator music at the top of a building, performing of series of pranks that they would’ve definitely gotten caught for in real life and making “profound and enlightened” statements that would make even the hipster at the back of a Barnes and Noble vomit. In the days after, Margot goes missing again and Q has to find her with the help of his stereotypical friends with the help of some clues she leaves behind. In the process, “lessons” are learned and an “adventure” is had.
For those who weren’t able to pick it up from the brief synopsis, Margot (Cara Delevingne) is the ultimate manic pixie dream girl. She also happens to be one of the most laughably awful characters I’ve seen in recent years for a film. Her entire personality is made up of these tiny little quirks that are only there to make her look hip. She leaves little clues, she has a giant record collection, she highlights parts of her Walt Whitman book and she has to take part in painfully bad lines that comes off less as bold, thought provoking statements from an experienced artist and more as the kind of vapid trash you would expect from a really smug fifth grader. Most of her dialogue feels like it’s built so that it could be posted with quotation marks by a pre-teen on Facebook. There’s never a moment where she says anything that feels like what a real person would say in that situation. Watch (or don’t) as Margot states that there town is a paper town with paper people in it. Note in this moment how the music, the performance and the reaction from Q clearly show that we are supposed to find her magical and filled with the wisdom of Gandhi and Martin Luther King combined. Everything about her screams of a director trying as hard as he can to look cool and relatable to a youth audience. She’s the heart of this coming of age teen film and yet this teenage girl feels less like an honest teen and more like the human equivalent of the ukulele music that plays in Geico and McDonald’s ads, it’s an obnoxious failed attempt by a corporation to appear relatable.
Q (Nat Wolff) also happens to be a really bad character but for a whole different reason. If Margot was the film screaming for you to look at it, Q is the quiet and lifeless person who just happens to be there without a true purpose. There’s a difference between making your character shy and average and making your character simply vague and non-existent. Having just watched a movie where he was the main protagonist, I learned nothing about his personality and I learned nothing about him besides the fact that he’s supposed to be smart and he’s supposed to be caught up in the mystery of who Margot is. I can’t say anything else about him, he’s just there stating the story and acting as the straight man to wacky characters in an already very watered down comedy. I guess we’re supposed to see him as this guy who lives too close within his comfort zone but that never seems like a real problem for him that he comes to terms with at the end, it’s just another thing Margot can state about Q to make the film come off as that much wiser. Besides, if that was even supposed to be the true conflict of the film, Dope already handled that subject excellently earlier this summer.
All of the supporting characters live up to the pathetic attempts made to create the two leads. Q has two friends; one of them is Radar (Justice Smith), a bland carbon copy of the personality of Q and the other is Ben (Austin Abrams), an irritating attempt at having comedy in the film. Almost every line Ben has is unfunny and it makes you want to see him get punched. Everyone else who I haven’t mentioned already is just as forgettable and bland in there so called personalities.
I’m failing to come up with more words to say the same thing. Everything I said about Margot can be said for the whole movie. The movie isn’t meant to reflect on the feelings and events that real teenagers have but instead pander to them. The movie has nothing to say about life but it impresses through the usage of these empty, nonsensical moments that are only brought up to make it look modern. The characters take the time to sing the Pokémon theme song and it comes off as this incredibly false reference that adds nothing to the characters. The soundtrack of the film does a good job of showing this attitude as well. Take Dope for example with its soundtrack. That movie did a great job mixing new and old music to tell the story. The entirety of the soundtrack of Paper Towns feels like the director looked up popular new songs of the moment and threw them in there to come off as impressive and modern. I enjoyed some of the music the film decided to play but it all felt patronizing to me, as though the film used its soundtrack to talk down to me.
The movie takes these themes from previous coming of age dramas and mixes them together at random with little effort put into any of them. I have no idea what this film was trying to say; overall the message would probably be something along the lines of you only live once. In the end, none of that matters because the directors and writers clearly had no interest in presenting some bigger message. Paper Towns could be summed up in one word as fake. The half assed wisdom from Margot is fake. The random references are fake. The unrealistic events the characters go through are fake. There is not a single moment of this film that felt sincere and instead of offering true advice, they decided to exploit their audience in the cheapest way possible. At its core this is an ugly movie and I look forward to never having to discuss it ever again.
Release Date: 7/24/2015
Cast: Nat Wolff, Cara Delevingne, Austin Abrams and Justice Smith
Directed by: Jake Schreier
Screenplay by: Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber
Based on the Book by: John Green