Review: “Paper Towns”

By Alan Mattli

Paper Towns PosterWarning: This review contains spoilers.

The best movie adaptations aren’t the ones that slavishly follow the plot, the setting, the structure, the characterisations, or even the message of the work they are based on. Quite often, it is exactly the freedom a filmmaker takes in adapting something for the big screen that shows him or her to be a true artist. Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange is a masterpiece not least because it strips Anthony Burgess’ original of its essential final chapter (a change Burgess famously abhorred). And Kurosawa’s atypical treatments of Shakespeare in Throne of Blood and Ran, relocating Macbeth and King Lear respectively to feudal Japan, stand tall as two of cinema’s most eloquent testaments to the Bard’s universal appeal and adaptability. But how far can an adaptation stray from its source material’s intentions before this becomes an actual filmic problem?

On its own terms, the film version of the 2008 YA novel Paper Towns by John Green – who first caught the moviegoing public’s eye last year when his 2012 bestseller The Fault in Our Stars about two cancer-stricken teenagers was given a heartfelt screen incarnation by Josh Boone –, directed by Jake Schreier (Robot & Frank), is nothing if not serviceable. In fact, Paper Towns probably even trumps Boone’s Fault artistically, its evocative use of shadows and golden late-afternoon sunlight steeped in the aesthetic philosophy of Malick and Linklater, making the latter’s cinematic language look somewhat bland in comparison.

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But screenwriters Scott Neustadter’s and Michael H. Weber’s often half-baked tinkering with Green’s original story – far from adding up to a wholly convincing book, it may be worth noting – does a disservice not only to the novel but indeed also to the film itself. In attempting to right several of the book’s “wrongs”, Neustadter and Weber, who also wrote the script for Fault and have already been signed on to adapt Green’s Looking for Alaska, have created an awkwardly jumbled movie that cuts corners inconsistently, that shifts the focus of the narrative without accounting for the chain reaction this causes, and whose morals are curiously scattered all over the place.

The basic premise remains the same, though: ever since her family moved in next door more than ten years ago, Orlando native Quentin “Q” Jacobsen (Nat Wolff, emoting clumsily), now an 18-year-old high school senior, has been in love with Margo Roth Spiegelman (an uninspiring Cara Delevingne), an adventurous, free-spirited, mischievous girl who has gone on to be the most popular pupil at Q’s school. But one night, even though the two haven’t spoken in years – and with mere weeks to go before the end of senior year –, Margo breaks into Q’s room and asks him to go on a midnight drive through Orlando with her, over the course of which they take revenge on bullies, cheaters, and bad friends. The next day, Margo has disappeared – but not without leaving behind cryptic clues, which Q and his best friends Radar (Justice Smith) and Ben (Austin Abrams probably delivering the film’s best performance) desperately try to solve.

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“Imagine people complexly”, is the oft-repeated moral of Paper Towns, as it culminates in a canny takedown of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” trope that still pervaded American pop culture when Green’s book was published in 2008. Challenging the ideal of the MPDG – aptly described by critic Nathan Rabin as “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures” –, arguing that putting people, especially women, on a pedestal, turning them into stock characters and romanticised figures, is just as dehumanising and sexist as belittling them, was the highpoint of an otherwise underwhelming novel. (Following notable recent examples like Natalie Portman in Zach Braff’s Garden State or Kirsten Dunst in Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown, the trope was arguably put to rest in Marc Webb’s subversive rom-com (500) Days of Summer – written by Neustadter and Weber.)

It is in conveying this essential message that Schreier’s movie struggles, particularly in its third act. Having figured out where Margo must have gone, Q, Ben, Radar, Radar’s girlfriend Angela (Jaz Sinclair), and Margo’s friend Lacey (Halston Sage) pile into Q’s minivan for an impromptu 1,200-mile road trip from central Florida to upstate New York in order to find her and bring her home. In the book, this decision is taken – and the hurry it is taken in is justified – because all clues hint at Margo being suicidal, which turns out to be at least semi-true, as they ultimately find her in a state of slight mental instability. The film version significantly tones down the seriousness of the quest: Q and his gang rush their trip because Radar, Angela, Lacey, and Ben are anxious to make it back home in time for prom; while Margo, once found, is distinctly at ease with herself and the world, living not the life of a person trying to escape her oppressive MPDG image but one of contented hipster splendour (“I have a lot of time to read and to think”).

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Although this change was most likely inspired by the commendable effort to divert attention away from Margo – the book’s obsession with this annoyingly self-centered character being one of its major problems –, there are multiple dramatic problems that arise from it. Most obviously, replacing the possibility of a character committing suicide with the wish of attending prom takes away from the narrative’s urgency and superimposes a rather silly, low-stakes teen movie cliché. Furthermore, glossing over the potential emotional scars the years of blind adoration and idealisation may have left on Margo’s psyche severely damages the point the movie as a whole is still noticeably trying to make. (It also strips the introductory anecdote of Q and Margo finding a man who killed himself of any dramatic purpose.) Worse yet, Paper Towns ends on a wistful voiceover in which Q still fantasises about all the cool things Margo is certainly doing in her life – which flies in the face any critical evaluation of the MPDG trope the movie might have inspired.

Ultimately though, as in the book, it is still Margo as a character that proves to be the story’s most glaring problem. Schreier, Weber, and Neustadter seem to have realised that Margo’s implicit arrogance and childish sense of entitlement make it fairly difficult to like her, much less empathise with Q’s single-minded fascination with her. So cutting her screen time to a minimum is a welcome decision in itself – even if it does rob some of her idiosyncratic lines of the necessary context, making them stand out like a sore thumb –, amplifying instead Q’s relationship with his friends; but without ridding the narrative of her altogether, this does not solve much because even in such small doses, she is a disruptive element.

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This is not to say, however, that these efforts do not yield anything of worth. On the contrary, by focusing largely on the story’s underlying theme of teenage friendship threatened by the looming approach of college-induced diaspora, the film paints an at times surprisingly vivid picture of end-of-school emotions – something the book, not least because of Margo’s overbearing omnipresence, cuts lamentably short. This, too, may not be completely free of issues: Angela, absent from the book’s final third, tags along for the climactic road trip for the sole reason, one suspects, of taking Radar’s virginity; while the possibility of Q being a bad friend for blindly following a girl who left without a word remains disappointingly unexplored.

Still, there are enough charming, entertaining, and even arrestingly melancholic scenes to be found here to make up for the troubling final act. The middle section in particular, a long, repetitive slog in the book, undergoes a much warranted transformation – the narrative creases are straightened out, the friendships (if not exactly the characters themselves) become more genuine and even meaningful, and thanks to good performances by DP David Lanzenberg and the soundtrack compilers, Paper Towns also proves to be a pleasant audiovisual experience. If pressed to choose between the sub-par source material and its issue-riddled adaptation, this reviewer would still go with the film.

★★★½ (out of six)


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