Nat Wolff returns to John Green in ‘Paper Towns’

24 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Paper Towns’ movie review: Adaptation of John Green’s YA best-seller is smart and soulful.

‘Paper Towns” is based on a 2008 young adult novel by John Green, author of “The Fault in Our Stars.” That novel’s 2014 film version was a big surprise hit, co-starring Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort.The 109-minute movie “Paper Towns” all too often seems inert, even as it condenses clues to its core puzzle about an 18-year-old girl’s whereabouts.In the acknowledgments to his novel Paper Towns, John Green recognizes Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild as a “particularly helpful” book about disappearance.

This film of author John Green’s 2008 YA bestseller may throw off the author’s legion of fans by stripping its story of some inessential elements, but it does so for the right reasons. Indeed, the 1996 non-fiction account tells the story of California native Christopher McCandless who, after graduating from Emory University, donated his savings to Oxfam and effectively disappeared, hitchhiking to Alaska under the moniker Alexander Supertramp for an inspiring, though ill-fated, period of solitude. The satisfying result is a little like “Breaking Away” (1979), along with a dash of John Hughes and an appreciation for life’s big and small transitions. One night Margo, whose quirky, sorta bad-girl-ness is a fixation among her Orlando classmates, enlists “Q” to help her in some revenge pranks against pals and an ex-BF who’ve wronged her. But the precocious beauty whose disappearance sets the plot in motion — a myth of a girl named Margo — is the kind of character who actually improves a movie by vanishing.

Directed by Jake Schreier, Paper Towns finds Fault’s Nat Wolff upped to a lead role as the lovelorn Quentin Jacobsen, who has spent most of his life transfixed by the charismatic Margo (played by model Cara Delevingne, who – sorry, haters – is, for all intents and purposes, Margo), his best friend from the age of 10 until high school, when he was unceremoniously dropped once the caste system was sorted. Quentin and Margo and their friends, including Quentin’s buddies Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith), are in a tizzy about prom, especially Radar, since he is the only one of the three guys with an actual girlfriend, a fellow senior named Angela (Jaz Sinclair). Wolff) thought it miraculous that he lived across the street from Margo Roth Spiegelman (Carla Delevingne), an enigmatic, beautiful and popular classmate. Like another bard of middle-class high school drama, filmmaker John Hughes, Green gives teens credit for having a rich interior life, and that’s a worthy endeavor.

Along with Margo’s friend Lacey (Halston Sage) and Radar’s girlfriend Angela (a radiant Jaz Sinclair), he drives cross-country to a “paper town,” a city on a map rumored to be fictitious. Unfortunately, in the translation to screen, articulate often becomes pretentious, and Margo’s world weariness is never given a motivation apart from a 30-second scene of her hand-wringing parents. Green’s favorite sentence appears to be, “Wait … what?” I did not feel any connection between Margo and Quentin in the way that I felt Woodley and Elgort connected in the 2014 film. One night, as their senior year is winding down, Margo invites Quentin to join her on a clandestine adventure that will require him borrowing his parents’ van. The far more appealing protagonist of the movie is Margo’s neighbor, Quentin — “Q” to his friends — a loyal band geek played by Nat Wolff who’s in love with her.

But as he sets out to unravel the mystery of her escape, Quentin realizes that in order to find Margo he has to remove her from the pedestal and see her for who she really is. They deliver payback Margo style (silly vandalism and embarrassing pranks), and make it back home without being punched by the victims or collared by the police, but she doesn’t show up for school the next day. And to this effect, the innocent trio of Wolff, Abrams and Smith is the right combination of sweet and painfully awkward as they banter over video games and belt out the Pokémon theme song. The problem, though, is that the mystery that was the book’s impetus is simply not present in its big-screen adaptation, snatching away all urgency and finding a wooden Quentin going through the motions. When Q and his friends discuss girls over a game console or bond over the singing of a Pokemon song, their Musketeer-like camaraderie is convincing, or at least as much as a PG-13-rated conversation between adolescent males can be.

Margo’s trail of breadcrumbs is all but served on a plate in the film, and for someone supposedly risking it all (or, at least, perfect attendance and prom) for the girl of his dreams, Wolff’s Quentin is pretty unperturbed. This one is less so, with a cultural shadow that is not as long. “Fault” had more star power and bravery, but “Paper Towns” respects the characters and core audience just as much. I can’t blame Delevingne, a model who is transitioning to film acting, for Margo’s troubles as a character — she delivers fortune cookie lines like, “You have to get lost before you find yourself,” with conviction, and her raspy voice and power eyebrows communicate just the right amount of danger for Orlando.

When Margo leads Q on a night of mischief at the expense of some disloyal friends, it shakes Q out of his comfort zone and sends Margo into a spell of self-seriousness, as she stares glumly over the skyline bemoaning her “paper town with paper people.” The movie’s title is a reference to a cartographer’s term for a fake place that exists only to catch copycat mapmakers, and a central theme in “Paper Towns” is learning to discern the authentic from the affected and the real from the idealized. The good news is, she disappears the next morning, and Q’s efforts to find her take on a satisfying Sherlockian vibe, as clues come in the form of old maps, folk records and Walt Whitman poems. No movie has to be slavishly faithful to it source, and that’s not why “Paper Towns” (taking its title, in part, from a mapmaker’s trick designed to protect against copyright infringement) never takes flight.

As summer and college await, they wind their way up the East Coast to the beat of a mood-boosting indie rock soundtrack, their romantic tensions and roadside high jinks carrying the bittersweetness of a last adventure. It fails to give moviegoers a robust portrait of Margo, even in all her confusion and uncertainty, and doesn’t fully explore the book’s themes and multiple metaphors about being connected and seeing others for who they are. It seems unlikely anybody’s mom will get angry about “Paper Towns.” Rarer still is a studio movie for young adults that concerns itself not with vampires or the apocalypse but with the mundane matters of the heart.

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