There is an ideal image of happiness and success: suburban family, good job, outgoing personality, etc., etc. Our lives are formed and developed like a production line, with strict rules and schedules. We come out the other end an unremarkably perfect product. If we always do what we’re supposed to, conforming to the one-dimensional tics that “define” us, we become clipped fragments of a paper person.
Margo, an intrepid enigma who seems to go on endless adventures, would call this social construct created by progressive, middle-class values a paper town: a dot on a map that the creators used to identify breached copyrights, a plagiarized city for a plagiarized lifestyle. One of the more remarkable aspects of this story adapted from John Green’s (The Fault in Our Stars) best-selling YA novel is how the ideal of authenticity can itself be a fantasy.
After spending an unforgettable night with Margo (Cara Delevingne) terrorizing those who wronged her, Quentin (Nat Wolff) renews a childhood crush with this girl next door. But when things take a turn after Margo mysteriously disappears, Quentin, along with his dweeby friends Ben and Radar, search for clues left behind by the elusive, larger-than-life persona. Their search takes them to the hidden corners of a suburbia: an abandoned office in a bad part of town, the bedroom of a cheating boyfriend, and a caricature of a hipster girl’s room.
Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s (500 Days Of Summer, Spectacular Now) screenplay is an uneven merging of three different genre pieces: the beginning is a coming of age love story, the middle is a goonies-like mystery, and the final act is a road trip movie. It all leads to a subversive anti-climax that questions the truth behind Margo’s image, even if what came before couldn’t sustain the level of authenticity it wants to hold the characters to.
Forced relationships are pushed onto the characters to fit simple, happy formulas. Somehow the characters manage to look like polished movie stars even with little sleep and uncomfortable accommodations. The theme seems to be at odds with some of the glossy execution, and the film would have done better with a feel similar to James Ponsoldt’s delicately poignant Spectacular Now.
Quentin’s two awkward friends manage to solidify romantic relationships without much cause other than that the Hollywoodized plot requires it. Ben, the horny friend who pants around every attractive girl and fantasizes about pursuing a relationship, manages to get a date with the “hot girl” under contrived circumstances. Other than Quentin, the only character that emerges as more than a prop is Margo’s best friend Lacey, who displays a willingness to be perceived by others for more than just her beauty, but the film ends up squeezing even her into a plot device for Quentin’s friend to take the “hot girl” to prom.
The one-dimensionality of most of the supporting characters can mostly be overlooked because of the surprisingly naturalistic performances from a cast that sometimes has to spew out heavy “movie talk” with nuance. It’s like trying to do ballet with bricks attached to your legs, but they mostly manage it gracefully. The only actor that suffers is Cara Delevingne, who has the range of a sock puppet despite the fact that her stiff expressions almost work in light of the story’s resolution.
Although each act develops the themes coherently, the mid-section’s unabashedly absurd sense of adventure created by the “noirish” plot points works the best cinematically, as the moody settings crack the picture frame of the façade that permeates middle-class lifestyles. But other than an abandoned office building and a few other memorable images, like the set design in Margo’s hipster wet dream of a room, Paper Towns feels aesthetically redundant with way, way too many transitional montages that utilize indie pop tracks by artists like Vampire Weekend and The War On Drugs. By the time Bon Iver has made his way close to the end of the film, the music choices border on self-parody.
Paper Towns is a film about cardboard perceptions and fantasies, but too often it succumbs to the same hollow level that it condemns. Despite some strong performances and an earnest message, Paper Towns feels too much like a paper movie.