November 17, 2017

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Manic Pixie Girl Rising | “Paper Towns” Movie Review

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Quentin (Nat Wolff) and Margo (Cara Delevingne)  in Paper Towns (Photo: Michael Tackett)

Quentin (Nat Wolff) and Margo (Cara Delevingne) in Paper Towns. Photo by Michael Tackett

The box office success and the generally well received critical response of the first film adaptation of a John Green novel, The Fault in Our Stars, provides ample evidence that there is an audience to be found for somber, darker YA subject matter that has nothing to do with lottery killings or armed insurrections. Although the filmmakers of the new Paper Towns, based on Green’s third novel (Dutton, 2008), stay true to the author’s voice, they also soften it, downplaying the darkness and making one singular young woman more ordinary.

It was love at first sight for Quentin Jacobsen, who goes by Q, when Margo Roth Spiegelman and her family moved next door in their generic, picture-perfect Florida suburb. Both nine years old, they initially were close, but for the next nine years, she never spoke to him. Margo grew up to become the most popular and talked-about girl in their high school, while Q became a reserved band geek and A-student. Q pines for her, but she doesn’t look his way until a few weeks before high school graduation.

Around midnight on a school night, Margo taps on Q’s bedroom window, slides into his bedroom, and promises him the best night of his life if he drives the getaway car during her nocturnal mission to right some wrongs: her jock boyfriend has been cheating on her with her best friend. What follows includes breaking and entering, vandalism, and sexual humiliation.

Crime does pay for Q: he gets a slow dance with Margo, a good night kiss, and the hope that she may actually acknowledge him at school. However, the next day she’s not in class; she’s vanished. Her parents don’t know where she is—she has run away five times before—and none of her friends have heard from her. All she left are ingenious clues for Q to find and decipher, riddles that would vex Sherlock Holmes. Margo could be a Gone Girl in the making, though the antisocial loner lurking in the character in print has been made more palatable here. (In the novel, she most definitely doesn’t want to be found.)

The first half hour has verve, though the pranks are toned down a bit from the book: the pair don’t smash fresh fish in the back seat of Margo’s friend’s car, for example. As the duo accomplish her to-do list, Margo, an Auntie Mame type full of life-changing pronouncements, pushes Q beyond his comfort zone, chiding him that she’s only helping him to break out of his shell. According to her, he should feel the same excitement that he experiences from their all-nighter all the time (if only). Because she’s the center of the school’s social orbit and she knows it, there’s more than a bit of Mean Girls’ Regina George in her, too, especially when she doesn’t get her way.

However, Margo’s a walking contradictory conceit: beautiful, well liked, rich, and, deep down, an  outsider. No CDs for her. She has an extensive album collection that would be the envy of any college radio station: Woody Guthrie, Billy Bragg, and the like. Margo reads Leaves of Grass and shares some of Holden Caulfield’s world-weary detachment: she looks down on her town as flimsy and artificial, hence the title. She’s also a kindred spirit to Emma Watson’s artsy bohemian in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, though not as carefree or kind.

Yet for someone so self-aware, it’s puzzling that Margo’s the leader of the in-crowd. In the novel, she’s referred to as the school’s queen, and if her boyfriend and his friends’ bullying gets out of hand, she puts a stop to it. So questions arise: Why would she continue to date someone like her boyfriend in the first place, and why is she surprised (or upset) that he cheated?

British model/actress Cara Delevingne plays Margo with firm determination and confidence, though with less condescension than in the book. (Her American accent is spot-on.) Indeed, the film moves with vigor in the beginning but flags when Delevingne’s not around. After a lull during which Q deduces the clues, the film picks up again as he and his friends hit the road on a search-and-find mission.

Nat Wolff, who appeared as everyone’s friend, Isaac, in last summer’s The Fault in Our Stars, plays Q in this film. In looks, he recalls a taller and a more physically fit Dustin Hoffman, especially when his voice dips into a gravelly bass, but Q is calm and centered. He too easily tosses aside his good boy image to become Margo’s one-night “ninja.” With the exception of Delevingne, the cast could use a boost of caffeine. The bromance bonhomie between Q and his two best friends has the slackness of a mumblecore indie. Some of their scenes don’t end but rather dissipate from low energy. After Margo and Q’s shenanigans, the only moment that has any real sense of urgency is when Q and his gang take the road trip and, to stay on schedule, have only five minutes to spend at a gas stop.

Overall, the transition to the screen hasn’t been as smooth as that of The Fault in Our Stars, with subplots left on the editing floor.The prologue, in which young Margo and Q discover a bloodied corpse, an apparent suicide, is dropped, never mentioned again. Even at that young age, Margo empathizes for the victim, reasoning that “Maybe all the strings inside him broke.” In the book, it’s this memory that propels Q to action, believing that the missing Margo has killed herself. On screen, though, he overlooks that possibility.

Shailene Woodley singlehandedly infused life into The Fault in Our Stars. In comparison, Paper Towns is underpopulated; apparently there are only so many Woodleys to go around.

Paper Towns opens today nationwide.

Directed by Frank Schreier

Rated PG-13

109 min.

Kent Turner About Kent Turner

Kent Turner (kturner@mediasourceinc.com) edits SLJ's DVD reviews and is the editor of Film-Forward.com

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