I really didn’t want to like John Green. Everything that I had read about The Fault In Our Stars before seeing it last year made it seem like the exact kind of movie that normally has me gagging in the aisles. However, despite all my initial resistance, I ended up being completely disarmed by that charming little story, mostly because of the breakout performances by Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort. So in approaching Paper Towns, I found myself going in with a bit more optimism, and even a little excitement in seeing how it turned out, even if the trailers certainly seemed a little less promising than the previous film. Was ‘Fault’ just a fluke smoke-screened by smart film-making, or should John perhaps consider changing his last name from Green to Hughes?
Quentin (Nat Wolff), is for all intents and purposes your average high school outcast. He mostly sticks by his two best friends Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith) as they hang out in the band room, sees himself as waiting to sprout in college, and has had an intense (some would say slightly creepy) infatuation with his next door neighbor Margo (Cara Delevingne). The two of them were friends when they were children, but eventually Margo’s adventurous spirit drew the more timid Quentin away from her lifestyle. That is until one night, when lo and behold, she comes knocking on his window asking him to be her get-away driver as she performs nine tasks against her group of friends who she sees as having betrayed her. Quentin has the time of his life on this night of mischief, hoping things will change now, and they do. Margot disappears into nothingness the very next day, leaving only a small trail of clues as to where she’s gone. Dragging his friends into the search, prefacing it as their last bonding experience of high school, the boys set off to unravel the mystery of where Margot has gone.
Both the virtues and flaws of Paper Towns ultimately rest on Nat Wolff as Quentin, who’s performance is definitely a mixed bag. I suspect that the former Naked Brothers Band member simply isn’t much of an actor, as he brings very little of the natural charisma or charm that Quentin clearly needs to have judging by the lines he’s given. He’s just, there. Rarely seeming like more of a passive presence even in the scenes with the most urgency, which is a big problem since the film mainly centers on his quest for love. It doesn’t help that while Delevingne is certainly an alluring screen presence with a bit more range than Wolf, she’s not really in the movie enough to make much of an impression on us beyond simply being a charismatic criminal who can spin a sentence well. She dosen’t give off that magical feeling that makes the audience want to chase her along with Quentin. With all of that said, the rhythm of the movie picks up dramatically once the focus switches to Quentin’s two buddies. Abrams and Smith both happen to be absolute naturals who fill characters who very easily could have been tired types with a great deal of energy. Wolff can’t help but have a little chemistry with these guys, and once the mystery ultimately leads to a road-trip with these three, and a couple other friends, thing start getting very enjoyable.
The mostly stiff performances might ultimately be on director Jake Schreier, fresh off of his successful indie Robot and Frank. He really does not have a great deal of life behind the camera, making every sequence as generic looking as the last. In a film that needed to build up the majesty of one character in particular, this lack of flare becomes a issue, almost as if he wants us to care about as little as he does. It’s not a terribly directed movie by any means, but it is very lifeless, forcing these poor actors to have to almost entirely pull from the words on the page. With all of that said, what ultimately shifts his movie into decent territory is the way it resolves. Green seems to be very good at crafting endings that are infused with both sweetness, and reality. While the movie would have done well to have some of the supporting characters be more sober minded throughout, the turns the story takes in third act reflect exactly what I suspect many audience members will be thinking throughout. However, like many movies of this type, it turns down the very perfect spot to cut to black in order to slavishly resolve all the plot threads, which is a weak choice.
Paper Towns simply doesn’t come together in the way it should. Unlike Josh Boone with The Fault In Our Stars, Schreier seems more content to simply coast off of Green’s words without making a concerted effort to bring them to life. As such, our lead performances don’t register in the way they should, and the whole thing ultimately comes out a little flat. It certainly has it’s enjoyable moments, and definitely gets major props for the way this story resolves itself, but ultimately, perhaps it’s best to cross this town off your summer itinerary