“She’s gone. She gave me a pen. I gave her my heart, she gave me a pen.”
-Lloyd Dobler (Say Anything…)
There are two distinct things that made me want to review Paper Towns. First, there is an interesting evolution of the teen film genre that is happening. Second, Cara Delevingne’s character Margo is quite possibly the most blatant use of the “manic pixie dream girl” trope. Paper Towns is directed by Jake Schreier and is an adaptation of John Green’s book by the same name. John Green might sound familiar because he also authored The Fault in Our Stars. The third person creatively involved in this film is the screenwriter Scott Neustadter. The trio have created an interesting story that is incredibly familiar.
Quentin (Nat Wolff), a nerdy kid from the suburbs, falls head over heels for Margo (Cara Delevingne), the girl who lives across the street. When they were little kids, they were best friends. At that age, Margo develops a taste for mysteries and invites Quentin on her adventure, but the straight-laced Quentin reluctantly declines. As they grow up, they grow apart. Margo’s rebellious attitude doesn’t fit with Quentin’s by-the-book routine. After finding out that her boyfriend is sleeping with her best friend, Margo enlists the help of her old friend Quentin to take revenge. When the smoke clears from their exciting night, Margo is gone and Quentin feels he must find her.
The acting in Paper Towns is fine. Nat Wolff is the perfect lead and has a surprising amount of depth in his repertoire. Austin Abrams and Justice Smith are possibly the best part of the film. They play Ben and Radar, Quentin’s best friends. Both characters have scenes where they stand out, and frankly without them, the film would feel flat. This is Cara Delevingne’s first lead role, and it shows. Her performance is probably the least captivating and disappointing. I, however, don’t put this solely on her. She has a huge weight on her shoulders. The script makes her out to be an unattainable perfect girl. This is a difficult task to pull off, especially for an actress with little experience.
Jake Schreier does an acceptable job directing this film. The comedic timing is good, and his ability to build tension services the main plot well. His visual style and choice of music is arresting as well as engaging. There is a sense of rhythm and pacing that makes Paper Towns enjoyable to a certain point. The film begins to lose steam in the third act. The closing act of the film is one of the more disappointing ends to a film in recent memory. Random chance instead of creative filmmaking pushes the last bit of narrative off the deep end.
Although the starting material may be at fault, the script does have problems. The problems don’t necessarily come from the writing itself but more from the structure of the story. Scott Neustadter is a good screenwriter. I have loved most of his films. (500) Days of Summer, The Spectacular Now, and The Fault in Our Stars are all well-written movies. The troubling trend I see is his reliance on the manic pixie dream girl. Paper Towns is essentially a movie that wholly exists because of this trope. Quentin’s entire journey is to find the one thing he feels he needs, Margo. Because of Margo, he feels alive for the first time. Along the way he starts to learn about life and the importance of “moments”. The character of Margo is the culmination of years of manic pixie dream girls. She is the combination of Claire Colburn (Elizabethtown), Penny Lane (Almost Famous), Summer ( Days of Summer), and Sam (Garden State) all rolled into one.
You might be asking, “Why is this a bad thing?”. Because Margo is a character who can have depth, but she doesn’t. She has no purpose in the story other than to serve our male protagonist with something to chase. Margo is an idea, not reality, which leads me to my other reason for wanting to review this film. The teen genre has embraced a realistic tone shift in the last few years. From the 80’s until now, most teen movies were a comedy or horror flick. The Perks of Being a Wallflower kind of changed everything. Now over the past few years, the teen genre has embraced the seriousness of life. The Spectacular Now, The Fault in Our Stars, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and Dope are all teen films that deal with adult issues. Paper Towns does its best to continue this theme, and it succeeds for the most part but with one glaring issue. Where the film has the most trouble is making Margo fit into the reality of its own creation.
Paper Towns as a film about friends learning to enjoy life and stepping out of their comfort zone succeeds. But as a film about learning about women and love, it fails. By making the MacGuffin a manic pixie dream girl, John Green, Jake Schreier, and Scott Neustadter have deflated their story. Nat Wolff, Austin Abrams, and Justice Smith are terrific and should be commended for their performances. But the creators of the film couldn’t move beyond the typical tropes to make Paper Towns stand out.