Not much to write home about in derivative ‘Towns’ | News Entertainment

Not much to write home about in derivative ‘Towns’

24 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

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

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. 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. 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. A great high school movie — “The Breakfast Club,” “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Boyz n the Hood” — will linger in your mind well into adulthood. “Paper Towns,” a mild coming-of-age mystery adapted from “Fault in Our Stars” author John Green’s bestselling novel of the same name, is only a good high school movie. Not a whole lot, at least in “Paper Towns,” a serenely bland adaptation of the John Green young-adult novel about a regular boy in love with the mystery girl next door.

Once upon a Hollywood time, when American adolescents were in the grip of social mores and studio censorship, nice guys wooed nice gals with boyish smiles, well-behaved hands and tamped-down desires. Based on the popular John Green novel and directed by John Schreier, the film doesn’t have any teens with cancer and the kids miraculously stay off their smartphones. I was almost cocky as the movie unfolded, convinced that I was prepared for Hazel’s inevitable death, and I mentally mocked the YA gods for constantly churning out such predictable tales. This summer’s YA adaptation Me and Earl and the Dying Girl seemed to emerge from Green’s shadow, though it came overloaded with style and snark that many found off-putting (I didn’t). Instead Paper Towns (* * * out of four; rated PG-13; opens Friday nationwide) is a satisfying look at young unrequited love, bromances, independence and letting go.

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. The narrator and audience proxy is Quentin Jacobson (Nat Wolff), Q for short, who opens up the story by explaining that he thinks everyone gets a miracle. Fault was unapologetically a weeper, but those hoping for more of the prized emotional currency known in today’s parlance as “feels” will come up short on Paper Towns. 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.

In his case that would be Margo Roth Spiegelman (the model Cara Delevingne), one of those women — guide, muse or free spirit, she comes in flavors as varied as Pocahontas, Zelda and Tinker Bell — who aid men on their journeys, metaphysical and literal. This is much lighter fare, a road trip beyond the outer reaches of a suburban teen’s comfort zone, with a moral that boils down to finding empathy for others — though I guess that’s just another kind of feels.

Even though they pass each other in the halls, the two haven’t spoken in forever, but nonetheless she mysteriously arrives at his window one evening for a midnight adventure and mission of revenge on Margo’s betraying friends. “We bring the rain down on our enemies,” she says matter-of-factly. The film’s darkest image (apart from one edgy left-field joke about the Confederate flag) is that of a divorced man who has committed suicide, and it appears briefly in the opening scenes to establish the character of the sort of person who would discover that body as a young girl.

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. Years later, after they’ve grown apart and are on the verge of graduating from high school, Q remains under Margo’s spell and she’s actually noticed him again. This is a brief, devilish hint of a world that’s nowhere to be found in the rest of the movie, but its survival from page to screen points to just how much power Green’s storytelling quirks hold over the filmmakers.

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. 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.

He rounds up a van full of pals — loyal buddies Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith), Radar’s girlfriend (Jaz Sinclair) and Margo’s BFF (Halston Sage) — to head north, tell Margo how much he loves her and make it back in time for prom. She’s played in the present day by model Cara Delevingne, whose take on the character is appropriately aloof — she seems to always be thinking of something (somewhere?) that no one else can see. And that’s exactly where she winds up after disappearing from her suburban Orlando town, leaving only her admirer: her lovestruck neighbor Quentin (the supremely likable Nat Wolff), who’s just shared one magical night with the girl of his dreams only to find her gone in the morning.

It’s a passage that starts in childhood, when Margo and Q find a dead body (she creeps toward it while he recoils), and lurches forward in adolescence after Margo vanishes, leaving what look like clues in her wake. Abrams and Smith are aces as his band-room sidekicks, with Radar’s home life a riot (his house is filled with his parents’ obsession for collectible black Santas) and Ben getting such great lines as “If there’s a tuba there, it’s not a party.” Green wrote the book Paper Towns as sort of a takedown of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl stock character, but Delevingne imbues her enigmatic role with a lot of soul. Seeing Margo as an idea and ideal (and himself as a savior), Q seizes on the clues — scattered in books of poetry and in more prosaic locations — in a search of a woman who leads him straight to, as is often the case, himself. Not only does the audience understand why everybody falls for Margo, even though she’s frustratingly flighty, but Delevingne has such an unmistakable magnetism, you miss the supermodel newcomer when she’s not around for half the movie. First, there’s the brisk opening third, in which Quentin slavishly follows Margo around the suburban darkness helping her exact revenge against her cheating ex-boyfriend.

Director Jake Schreier (Robot & Frank) propels us forward like Margo grabs Quentin, moving the action at an entertaining clip, with a minivans-and-manicured-lawns canvas that resembles Arcade Fire’s video for The Suburbs if you squint. 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.

Comparing movies with their literary sources isn’t always useful, but it’s instructive that while the book validates Q’s ordinariness, the movie tries to obscure it. Particularly intriguing in this passage is the sense that we don’t, and never fully could, understand the world the way Margo does — she’s found another plane of reality, she’s happy there, and she likes when ordinary folks like Quentin briefly stumble into it. 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 only significant character who isn’t immediately “relatable” (a noxious industry mantra and the most damaging word in American cinema) is Margo, a prickly, complex object of desire who rejects the world that Q embraces. “I do believe in college,” he quietly assures himself, after Margo goes on a mild anti-establishment harangue. Paper towns — fake destinations cartographers put on maps to protect their copyright — are a fascinating myth for Green to play with, and they make a smart parallel for the film’s exploration of how people can turn into nonexistent ideals. Weber and Scott Neustadter, the same team behind Fault) feel the need to underline their message with multiple references to Moby Dick and constant reminders of Quentin’s naïveté. 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. One day the target audience will graduate to more subtle metaphors and crave more complex narratives, provided they recognize that films like Paper Towns are maps for their feels, rather than destinations. 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.

That struggle is evident in the wall-to-wall pop songs that make it seem as if someone hired a D.J. to get the party going and, in particular, in the almost tic-like overuse of slow motion, a stylistic cliché that, intentionally or not, suggests Q has already begun packaging these moments of modest excitement into memories as they happen.

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