Director: Jake Schreier
Cast: Nat Wolff, Cara Delevingne, Austin Abrams, Justice Smith, Halston Sage
Plot: Quentin (Wolff) has a crush on the weird girl next door (Delevingne). When she goes missing, he launches on a quest to find her.
Paper Towns could have been quite crap. It is a good example of fast food cinema. When one of John Green’s novels, the outstanding (both film and book) Fault in Our Stars exploded into our lives, it was a genuine cinematic triumph. However, rather than looking for the next exciting source of entertainment, the producers took the easy road and simply trawled through John Green’s other books, adapting the first one they got their hands onto. They have taken a stand-alone success and in a desperate attempt to cash in, are doing the very best to turn it into some vague form of franchise (to hammer home the point: look out for a brilliant Fault in Our Stars cameo). However, one book does not make a solid author and Paper Towns is argued to suffer from a weak ending.
Thankfully, the film is a pleasant surprise. It helps that its two leads are alternative choices of casting. Nat Wolff brings an understated charisma to the part of Quentin, known as Q to his friends. On the surface, Wolff is coasting through, passively emoting to the wilder antics of his two friends. But there is more beneath the surface of the actor, the smaller details breaking through in the performance. He is the quiet kid at school, with his miniature friend group, missing out on all the cool parties. Yet underneath the stereotype, there is so much more life to him, something that most viewers will be able to see in themselves. The other students see what they want to see, but Quentin has a knack for strong grades, a decent sense of humour and deep sincerity to his character that is only ever touched upon. It creates the wonderful sense of a truly wholesome character, miles apart from the singular stereotypes we would have gotten in a 80s high school movie. The film revolves around him and his crush on the girl next door, Margo. Instantly, you see Margo through his eyes, the pretty yet interesting neighbour. There is a quick flashback that sets them up as strong friends who grew apart, spending their childhood playing detective games and hanging out. Then they drifted apart, a casual friendship between them but a chasm of social circles separating that once strong bond. There is a tragic air to this crush being the simple remainder of a strong friendship forgotten by time. In many ways, it sets up Margo to be quite the bitter character, a nice girl who chose to become the popular kid rather than the loyal friend. But this is where Schreier goes with the inspired casting choice of Cara Delevingne. On paper, it doesn’t work, the seemingly simple trick of casting a model rather than an actress with the hopes of creating a certain air of dreaminess about the part. Of course, Q is fascinated with the woman, when she spends her free time on cat-walks. But strangely enough, Delevingne never falls back on her beauty with this role. In fact, for a lot of the time, she is intent on contradicting it. She wears unflattering, dark hoodies and constantly uses expressions that detract from her natural prettiness. Some might call it a waste of natural talent (assuming that beauty is a talent), but in truth Delevingne is simply playing a character, who hasn’t got the time for constantly prettying herself up with make-up or fashion. Sure, there are moments, magical montages as her and Q glide through the city at night, where she looks breath-taking, but those moments of beauty are earned, not forced. We see a peek at the girl that Q sees. However, even outside of these moments, Delevingne is fascinatingly intriguing. Her character is superbly written, a high school kids who lives beyond the rules of the world. She lives in the moment, rejects any expectation of her character and has a wicked streak in her. She knocks on Q’s window one night and takes him away on a night of wreaking havoc on a cheating boyfriend. She is charismatic, unusual and strangely endearing. In short, even without the beauty, you understand why Q is head over heels this oddball girl.
And then she goes missing. It is quickly established that this isn’t about to turn into a crime drama (Brick this is not!), but Margo has a habit of vanishing whenever her life gets too stale. She leaves clues for those she considers worthy to let them know that she is safe and well. Q, after this night of vandalism with Margo, convinces himself that he is the one to receive the clues. Paper Towns then turns into a quest movie, where Quentin, with a few friends tagging along for the ride, sets off to follow a series of riddles with the goal of finding Margo waiting for him on the other end, hopefully with a declaration of love. Delevingne all but bows out of the story, taking with her that strange breath of life. It becomes Nat Wolff’s movie and thankfully he stands up to the challenge remarkably well. It is a rom-com with one half of the relationship missing, yet still boasting twice as much chemistry as your average romantic flick. The truth is that Paper Towns, very much like most of John Green’s works, is not quite the book you want it to be. The story evolves beyond Q’s crush on Margo and focuses on Q himself, and his evolution into a man. As soon as Delevingne leaves the plot, it gives the supporting cast room to shine and they eventually fill the gap she leaves behind. One moment, where the three friends, drunk and confronting a scary room they need to search for the next clue to Margo, has a brilliant pay-off, a joke that will leave you in stitches. In time, this is less a film about a couple trying to find love and a road trip movie where friends remind themselves while they are such good friends. Basically, Paper Towns is content on simply being pleasant fun. Consequentially, this movie is going to suffer when you hold it up next to the other John Green novel, Fault in Our Stars, partially the producers’ own fault for this forced franchise concept. There is not a single moment that will threaten to have you in tears, whereas Fault in Our Stars prided itself on the constant heartbreak. There are no memorable moment that will remain in cinematic history. Paper Towns will be no one’s favourite movie. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad film, cleverly addressing the book’s ropey ending with a more subtle touch and heart-warming message.
Final Verdict: Well cast and strongly written, Paper Towns is a contradictory movie. Not quite Fault in Our Stars, but despite the same author, it probably never intended to be in the same league.