Paper Towns (2015)

27 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

SPOILER ALERT! I’m going to talk about the ending of “Paper Towns,” because it’s the main reason I’m recommending the film.

The term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” was coined by film critic Nathan Rabin in the 2000s. Google describes it as “(especially in film) a type of female character depicted as vivacious and appealingly quirky, whose main purpose within the narrative is to inspire a greater appreciation for life in a male protagonist.”

You’ve seen them in movies before—Natalie Portman’s quirky, messy character in Zack Braff’s “Garden State,” Kirsten Dunst’s spunky, helpful flight attendant in Cameron Crowe’s “Elizabethtown,” Zoe Kazan’s blunt criticism of the trope in her penned “Ruby Sparks,” among others. They’re not real—they’re just constructs of a hopelessly romantic male writer’s imagination. As a character explained in “Ruby Sparks,” “Quirky, messy women whose problems make them endearing are not real. No woman is going to identify with this story.”

Why do I bring this up in a review for “Paper Towns?” Because every criticism I could throw at this movie suddenly means nothing when the movie ends.

What do I mean by this? Our main character, a high school student named Quentin is fascinated by the very idea of this spunky, quirky, popular girl who lives across the street from his house. One night, she unexpectedly arrives at his bedroom window and asks him to join her on her all-night journey to perform all sorts of tasks, like humiliating pranks on her friends and boyfriend for reasons of revenge. The next day, she’s missing. She seems to have run away. Quentin discovers that she left clues that lead to where she might have gone.

Who IS this person? She seems too interesting to be true. When Quentin finally does learn the truth, he finds…she is too interesting to be true. And she knows it. She doesn’t know herself, so others don’t really know her either.

On the one hand, it’s troubling when you’re steps ahead of the main character on his quest. But on the other hand, it’s refreshing that the screenwriters (or rather, the author of the novel of the same name the film is based on) were smart enough to let the character learn the lesson nonetheless. It would’ve been less interesting if we had easier answers and an overly romantic ending.

“Paper Towns” is based on a young-adult novel by John Green, who also penned “The Fault in Our Stars.” (Fun Fact: the film adaptations of both of these novels were written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber.) Like “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Paper Towns” has a nice blend of comedy and drama and some memorably appealing characters, only this one has more of a fun, mystery edge to it. This quirky, mysterious girl, Margo (Cara Delevingne) has brought Quentin “Q” (Nat Wolff, who played the comic-relief in the “Fault in Our Stars” film adaptation) to assist in her revenge plan for her boyfriend cheating on her with her best friend, and now, rather than start a nice relationship with Q the next day, she doesn’t turn up in school. Where is she? Q finds a clue in her bedroom that indicates she might have run away to a “paper town” (a fake town created by mapmakers to protect copyright). The more he looks into it, the more clues he finds that serve as a map to the location where she might be. He brings his two best friends, whip-smart Radar (Justice Smith) and obnoxious Ben (Austin Abrams), in on the mystery, and Margo’s best friend Lacey (Halston Sage) and Radar’s girlfriend Angela (Jaz Sinclair) join in on the fun as well. Before long, all five embark on a road-trip to the paper town. What they find along the way isn’t as important as what they discover along the way (of course), but when they return to school in time for prom, they are all changed people.

Q is the least interesting character in the film. He’s just your typical bland, likable, awkward teen hoping to have a good time in high school. Though, as played by Nat Wolff, he is at least likable. His friends are much more interesting, and thankfully, they’re given plenty of room to develop. Radar is loyal to his girlfriend, though he’s embarrassed to introduce her to his family. Why? Get this—his family has the largest collection of Black Santa figures decorated all throughout the house. (I’m not making this up.) Ben is borderline obnoxious and consistently funny—he’s given room to grow outside the horny, annoying comic relief he could’ve been if we didn’t get enough time to know him.

That’s the purpose of the story—to get to really know people. Lacey isn’t just a blonde knockout, Radar’s girlfriend isn’t a stick-in-the-mud who doesn’t know how to have fun, and of course, beneath Margo’s shroud of mystery lies someone more complex than you might think. More so than the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” However, my biggest problem with the movie (and I don’t think the ending could be blamed for this one) is that Margo just isn’t all that interesting to me to begin with, and I think that might be because Delevingne isn’t that charismatic of a performer to make me totally invested in the puzzle that is her character. But then again, the movie isn’t really about her as much as it is about Q’s love for her and his friendship with Radar and Ben. I really liked seeing these kids interact with each other and with Lacey and Angela.

With quick pacing by director Jake Schreier, dialogue from Neustadter and Weber that feel like realistic teenage banter, and a fine cast, “Paper Towns” is a cute, fun mystery-drama that is effective (especially) to the end.

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