by Ken B.
I remember reading or hearing somebody comment that this movie was well lit, and repeatedly went back to that statement. Well lit. Huh? I thought. That’s a pretty odd compliment.
Then I saw the film.
Paper Towns is really well lit. And sometimes, that’s the nicest thing I can say about it. More on that in a second. First, as is review protocol, we discuss the plot. Based on a 2008 novel by John Green, the film follows Quentin “Q” Jacobsen (Nat Wolff), a shy and more-or-less uninteresting high school senior in suburban Orlando who has spent the better part of ten years with a deep and utter fascination on his enigmatic neighbor, Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne). They were friends as young children, but slowly drifted apart for no particular reason. Q notes that Margo’s specialness was apparent to others as well as him, but he never gathered the courage to admit his infatuation with her.
But that doesn’t mean that the two will never meet again. In fact, quite the opposite – one random weeknight, Margo enlists Q and his car to carry out a series of bizarre pranks, personalized revenge on the long list of people who have wronged her over the years. The quiet Q is astonished at her assuredness and caution-to-the-wind behavior. He’s smitten all over again. But then something happens. The next day, Margo disappears. She’s done this before, and her parents (Susan Macke Miller and Tom Hillmann) are now all too used to it and assume she’ll come home when people stop talking about her. But Q thinks there’s more to this – with a bit of looking, and the help of his friends Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith), a set of clues left by Margo are unraveled, which lead to the location of Agloe, New York. Agloe is a “paper town” – a fictitious location created solely by cartographers, placed on maps to root out possible plagiarists. But the geographical coordinates exist. And as the rules of coming-of-age movies dictate, that means only one thing: road trip.
What was I saying earlier? Oh, yes. Lighting. Director Jake Schreier and cinematographer David Lanzenberg singularly succeed at a hypnotic, infused aesthetic. At one extreme, there are vividly saturated shots of an SUV driving through downtown Orlando at night, and at the other, a recurring location of an abandoned strip mall, where characters are largely framed in silhouette through yellow, dusty sunlight streaming in through broken boards over the windows and deteriorating blinds. On a visual front, Paper Towns is a success.
But less can be said about the script. There’s a point in the film, early on, when Margo tells Q that her various acts of revenge she is about to commit are her righting wrongs. When a book is adapted to film, that is an opportunity to right wrongs with the source text. I’ve read the novel, but a) that shouldn’t matter; and b) I forgot most of it anyway. But there is a unique feeling of a style of text from the book being left unadjusted before having it spoken out loud, and it feels irreplaceably and distractingly off. As we all know, dialogue doesn’t often look stilted on the page, but a reading of it can have wildly different results. Additionally, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s screenplay (two otherwise great writers) doesn’t even try to make someone as outrageous as Margo to be even somewhat plausible, while such efforts are placed on other major characters. Don’t you get it? She is one of the most important components to the film, and I couldn’t identify with her at all.
And when the writing is flawed, it is nearly impossible for actors to work at their maximum talent. Early scenes in Paper Towns’ 109 minute runtime clearly show a potential chemistry between Wolff and Delevingne, but they’re usually stacked with dialogue that is either banal or absurd. They’re never terrible, but you get the feeling that their potentials with the characters are being severely limited by the script. Miraculously, there is a supporting performance which is still able to thrive against all odds – I was curiously drawn to the strength of Austin Abrams’ work as the gawky Ben. His role is frequently comedic, and he has a strong presence and talent in that respect. If someone gives him the right material, he could definitely prove himself to be the real deal.
The sheer push of those involved ensures that from time to time, Paper Towns comes together and is able to deliver a particularly funny or meaningful sequence that works magnificently. But this is the exception, not the rule. It’s a sharp step down from the insight and wit of The Fault in Our Stars, which is another adaptation of a Green novel penned by Neustadter and Weber. Schreier tries his best to keep everything in order, Lanzenberg keeps our eyeballs on the screen with great imagery, and the actors give honest, genuine efforts to earn viewer interest. But somewhere along the line, be it the script or the story itself or a combination of the two, everyone is let down. And then, as I was saying, all you’ve got left are the pretty lights.
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PAPER TOWNS DIRECTED BY JAKE SCHREIER SCREENPLAY BY SCOTT NEUSTADTER & MICHAEL H. WEBER, BASED ON THE NOVEL BY JOHN GREEN STARRING NAT WOLFF, CARA DELEVINGNE, AND AUSTIN ABRAMS 109 MINUTES RATED PG-13