Is Paper Towns substantive or throwaway?
I rarely see movies like Paper Towns. Young adult fiction that focuses on a potential love story between angsty teens is not my normal cup of tea. The author of the book Paper Towns made an appearance in a filmed segment immediately prior. He explained how proud he was of the film, how everyone worked so hard, and that far more people are involved in the making of a movie than he ever realized. I wasn’t sure if this was a good sign that the author was so jazzed, an omen that the movie was not very good and we should clap anyway – like we were at a grade school piano recital, or was a public service announcement attempting to guilt me into not recording the movie on my cell phone.
The reality is something more nuanced. Paper Towns is neither good enough to deserve excited praise nor bad enough to be warned against. The title refers to fake towns drawn on maps to suss out plagiarists. The film’s content lives in that same quasi state of existence.
An opening narration drops us into the story of Quentin who grew up with and secretly fell in love with Margo. From grade school to high school they slowly grew apart as he moved in a decidedly nerdy and safe direction while she became the local hellion, not to be messed with. After showing up at his window unexpectedly following a multi year absence of friendship, Quentin accompanies Margo on a evil trip of mean spirited pranks as she gets revenge on all the people she no longer trusts in a final night blowout before running away from home for good. They vandalize people’s homes, take explicit blackmail photos of a naked boy being chased by an angry father, and wrap a car in saran wrap.
I appreciate the fact I know nothing of all these young actors. I love seeing fresh faces doing new things. The problem is Quentin and Margo are incredibly boring, lackluster characters. Their level of emotional range is like an amalgam of Michael Cera characters with the volume turned way down. Quentin’s friends call him “Q”, like an afterthought attempt to make him seem more hip than he really is. His soft tone delivery of sheer panic and inability to make decisions plays into Margo’s exceptionally soft tone delivery of angry revenge. Also – putting hair removal chemicals on a football jock’s eyebrow in the middle of the night involves breaking and entering and assault against a kid whose only crime was to have knowledge that Margo got cheated on. Yeah Q, she’s a real keeper. I’m glad this boring night of insipid meanness motivated you to do something with your life. For after said night of criminal behavior, Q feels forever changed in a positive way. The lesson here? Be mean and vengeful and you’ll find yourself.
After Margo disappears, Q decides to follow clues she left as to her whereabouts. He’s convinced it’s a message that he should follow her and they will fall in love. The mystery of following the clues begins 25 percent of the way into the film, and this where things start to get interesting. Roped into Q’s scheme are friends Radar – who recently started dating a girl and is embarrassed by his parent’s black santa collection, and Ben – a remarkably clean geeky boy who obsesses over girls and tells lies about who he’s already slept with. The trio follow the clues to an abandoned store front that Margo laid her escape plans in. A creepy place of knickknacks, party favors, and old maps that provided some nice moments of lonely, shadowy atmosphere ruined only by Paper Town’s inexplicable use of music. Whether driving around town, getting drunk at a party, or burning off eyebrows, the soundtrack jumps stylistically around with songs that make zero sense tonally. It’s one thing to pay attention to the music, it’s another to be distracted by what felt like a an obvious attempt to cash in on angsty teen music sales. It just didn’t work. Doesn’t work. Didn’t fit. Doesn’t fit. And I rarely comment on such things.
Despite my complaints, the introduction of Ben and Radar brought fresh life to a flaccid film. Their characters had more fully realized personalities that played nicely against each other and as the film went along I began to really like them. In the third quarter of the film the group, along with Radar’s girlfriend Angela and Margo’s best friend Lacey, head out on a road trip to a paper town they believe Margo ran off to. This, my loyal readers, is where the movie takes off. The road trip of these five chums really connected with me. In a closed space the humor took on the form of actual friendships – ones that felt familiar and comfortable.
There are a few standout moments like the obvious gross-out joke of Ben needing to pee in a can because there’s not enough time to stop the van. It was played less for the grossness and more for the way understanding friends treat each other, despite the completely telegraphed punchline. Or the ironic joke of having Radar, who’s black, put on a random truck stop shirt and have it be a confederate flag. I began to really like this group. I thought of a trip I made with my high school buddies from New York to Ohio, and how my friend Jon needed me to take his shoes off while he was driving so he could feel the pedals better. Or my best friend searching all through Cedar Point (an amusement park) looking for a pair of shorts that don’t have the Cedar Point logo (he is now a PhD in physics). There was something so real, so human about this section of the film I got emotional. I felt nostalgia for high school: for the friendships I had and the fun times I shared that generally don’t exist in the same way as an adult. I was truly enjoying myself.
And then that section ended. It started with Q and Margo so it must end with Q and Margo. Everyone else goes home so the two love birds can have a conversation in physically and emotionally hushed tones. I won’t give away the final result but watching them together sucked all the life right out of the room. Paper Towns flies when it’s about the friendships. Angela, Lacey, Ben, and Radar are so vastly more interesting that the movie should be about them. They made me laugh. They made me tear up. They made me feel my past. But that’s not who Paper Towns is about. At 109 minutes is feels like 120. The Q/Margo bookends account for the inflated length, cause the road trip section felt nowhere near long enough. What a shame, but I’m thankful for the good stuff while it lasted.