Review: ‘Paper Towns’ is just a paper movie in a not-so paper world

For a large segment of the audience anticipating “Paper Towns”, one review isn”t going to matter much.  Author John Green wrote the young adult novel on which it is based four years before “The Fault in Our Stars,” his breakout hit. Both properties  have passionate, young fanbases that will likely forgive whatever problems the movie has just to see their favorite characters on screen.  While Shailene Woodley”s incredible performance may have driven those viewers to tears in the big screen version of “Fault” I'm not so sure they will be as enamored with the offering this time around.

As in the novel, “Towns” begins with a flashback to a young Quentin (Josiah Cerio) smitten over the arrival of his new neighbor Margo (Hannah Alligood).  The two elementary school age kids quickly become fast friends.  She”s the adventurous type while he”s more conservative.  Quentin”s memories of their early days, however, are marred by the time the pair discovered a dead body in a nearby park.  A man had shot himself because he couldn”t handle that his wife was leaving him.  This event didn”t seem to rattle Quentin much (he notes if he had a panic attack for every person who died he wouldn't be able to function), but we”re told it was an incident Margo could never shake.

Fast forward to senior year in high school and circumstances have predictably changed.  Quentin (Nat Wolff) is a straight A student, but finds himself in the middle of the school”s social pecking order.  He has two best friends in Radar (Justice Smith) and Ben (Austin Abrams), band practice and that”s about it.  Margo (Cara Delevingne), on the other hand, has cultivated a mysterious reputation fueled by her rebellious acts and a sophisticated style seemingly unseen in the bland suburbs of Orlando, FL (assuming the movie actually takes place where it says it does, but more on that later).  Arguably the most popular girl in school, Margo has also drifted far, far away from Quentin who has never gotten over his initial crush on her.  That is until late one night when she appears in his window hoping he”ll join her on a mission of revenge against her cheating boyfriend.  As you can guess, it becomes one of the greatest nights of Quentin's life.

Following that mischievous adventure, Margo just up and disappears.  Having run away five times before and already 18, her parents only seem somewhat concerned (a bizarre reaction the movie calls out as best it can).  At school, however, rumors are flying about where Margo could have gone or what happened to her.  Quentin, still smitten from their magical night together, becomes obsessed with finding her.  He begins tracking the random clues she”s left lying around in hopes they will provide even a hint of where she might have ended up.  Eventually, Quentin and his buddies hit the road on a 24-hour lark to find her before they have to race back home for the all-important Senior Prom.

In many respects, this is all somewhat familiar territory, but director Jake Schreier (“Robot & Frank”) gets lucky with composer Ryan Lott's fantastical score and the fact that Delevingne”s performance is strong enough to make it all seem fresher than it really is.  Even when she has to utter insipid lines such as “I'm just a paper girl in a paper town” (that's just a sample).  Of course, it all becomes much less compelling when she”s off screen for a good chunk of the movie. 

There are also just some puzzling issues with the movie that aren”t inherent to the source material.  The production attempted to fake North Carolina for Orlando, Fl., where the novel took place, and the results are comically bad.  Outside of a few shots filmed in downtown Orlando you never believe the events are taking place anywhere near Florida and the fact the cast are often in long sleeve shirts and jackets as they prepare for their prom (no later than April on a Florida school calendar) is incredibly distracting.    You”re often left wondering how anyone at 20th Century Fox thought the filmmakers could actually get away with it.

And that”s part of the movie”s overall problem.  There is simply too much time to ponder these distractions.  The film feels 30 minutes longer than its 109 minute run time mostly due to the fact that “Paper” seems distinctly like three different films.  There is Margo and Quentin”s night of revenge (the most compelling part of the movie), Quentin”s search for clues and the road trip to Upstate New York to find the missing Margo.  Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (“500 Days of Summer,” “Fault”) might have found a way to make the adaptation work on the page, but Schreier has little luck avoiding a scattershot product on screen.  

Wolff is a talented and charismatic actor but the 20-year-old seems strangely too old for the role.  Or, you could argue co-stars Abrams and Smith seem too young in comparison. In either case it's an odd mix.  Wolff also brings a life experience that unintentionally informs his performance and that makes Quentin”s supposed un-coolness very hard to fathom.  This “Quentin” has never been to a house party before? Really? Moreover, Delevingne is so good as Margo that she dominates every scene they two are in together.  And that turns a key scene at the end of the movie, which should be a tearjerker moment, into something of an afterthought.

All of these criticisms likely won”t matter much to “Paper Town”s” audience, however.  Wolff is certainly compelling enough and Delevingne turns Margo into the girl every teenage boy dreams of being with and almost every teenage girl wishes they were.  Moreover, there”s just enough bits and pieces of the teen movie formula here to satisfy almost everyone in the demo.  You just have to wonder, wouldn”t it be great if it just wasn't such a flimsy paper movie in a not-so paper world?

“Paper Towns” opens nationwide on Friday.