Review: ‘Paper Towns’ Tries to Fold Significance Into the Everyday

24 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Paper Towns’ review: John Hughes would approve.

I’m clearly not the target audience for young-adult author John Green. A low-key vibe is both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of “Paper Towns,” Jake Schreier’s self-consciously modest adaptation of John Green’s 2008 novel.

In fact, Paper Towns is a movie that may remind those of us who have long left adolescence behind that there is such a thing as playing it too safe and that life’s mysteries are worth pursuing, at any age.Nat Woolf, the wry best friend in last year’s “The Fault in Our Stars,” has graduated to leading man in the current project taken from a novel by John Green: “Paper Towns,” where he plays a graduating high school senior who sets off to find a girl with whom he’s been infatuated for a decade.

“She loved mysteries, and so she became one,” narrator Quentin (known as Q, and played by Nat Wolff) tells us in the teen-dream drama “Paper Towns.” He’s speaking of his neighbor and fellow high-school senior Margo Roth Spiegelman (model-turned-actor Cara Delevingne, looking a tad old for high school) who, after a late-night revenge spree, disappears from their Orlando suburb just before graduation.Margo (Cara Delevingne) is the sort of hypercolour enchantress who crawls in through the windows of teenaged boys, then whisks them away on a night of adventure.

The title refers to an old trick of inventing a locale that exists in name only, so mapmakers would know if someone duplicated their work and infringed on copyright. Her parents have no idea where she’s gone, but Q — caught up in the romance of it all — finds clues that she’s left behind, and makes it his mission to find her. Perhaps not since John Hughes walked the earth has popular entertainment for teens credited them with a brain or devoted as much time to their fears and existential thoughts as it did to their comic drunken/sexual escapades. Although the low-stakes mystery that propels “Paper Towns” has little of that earlier film’s emotional pull — courtesy of two charismatic teens with cancer — this gentle coming-of-age story has its winning qualities. Rather, it focuses on buttoned-down Quentin (Nat Wolff), who meets free-spirited new neighbour Margo (Cara Delevingne) at the age of 7 and remains beguiled by her for the next 11 years despite the fact they soon grow apart.

In between takes, Wolff and four other actors are belting out Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” inside a van surrounded by so many green screens and LED monitors that some folks joke that it looks like they’re filming an action movie instead of a teen comedy-drama. (Indeed, the technology surrounding the van to make the movie’s pivotal road trip scenes look realistic was previously used on Gravity.) Spending several hours in a stationary vehicle doesn’t sound like the most glamorous job in in the business, but with just a few days left before production wraps, the cast is savoring its time together. “I don’t know if you can feel it on set, but something about the energy of everyone putting their heart all into one thing—it’s contagious,” says actress Halston Stage. She loudly proclaims she’s a ninja, and speaks either in a practiced faux-wisdom (starting sentences with “One must…”) or an even more practiced portentous cool (“We bring the rain on our enemies”). If it’s a bit dull, and too dependent on a what-I-learned voice-over to make its points, it can still be applauded for resisting the temptation to overreach. It’s senior year of high school with the prom approaching as Margo shows up late one night at Quentin’s second-storey bedroom window and persuades him to embark on a risky mission that involves payback on a cheating boyfriend and some others. She is, in short, the kind of person who, if she was drowning, would make most of us want to throw her a brick with the word “liFe pREsErVer” written on it.

Are we locked into where we’re to be as adults? (And if so, how depressing is that?) And hey, how about a road trip with a goal that can’t possibly live up to expectations, but will take us to an entirely different place, self-image-wise? It takes place in a world that has no consequences for the foolish and selfish things children do, where they can “borrow” a parent’s car and credit card for a 2,400-mile round trip and dance happily on prom night three days later. By the time Q realizes “what a treacherous thing it is, to believe that a person is more than a person,” the characters just might have grown on you a little bit. Paper Towns, out July 24, grapples with less serious subject matter, and the difference is palpable on set. “The vibe is way lighter since nobody’s dying,” Green says. While Quentin hangs out with slightly nerdy band-practice buddies Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith), Margo runs with a faster, more sophisticated crowd.

If not, well, that’s what grown-up movies are for. ‘Paper Towns,’ with Nat Wolff, Cara Delevingne, Halston Stage, Austin Abrams, Justice Smith, Jaz Sinclair. A self-styled “mystery girl,” Margo engineers disappearances and fosters tales of adventures as a band groupie and such, building her reputation into high school clique cred. A mildly notorious character in their community outside Orlando, Margo is also practiced at burnishing the stories that have made her such a captivating enigma.

Just before graduation, Margo disappears completely – after a cathartic night of minor vandalism with Quentin where she gleefully wreaks “ninja” revenge on the popular kids in her circle over perceived betrayals. But it does have some clue of how dumb this is, which is something, and it’s generally clever and sincere enough to be a reasonably charming walk through the last days of a nice boy’s high school, which is something more. The two most obsessed with her disappearance are not her parents (they’re numbed to it) but Quentin, and cheerleader Lacey (Halston Sage) the hurt target of Margo’s rage, who still considers her a best friend.

Margo has always loved a mystery and this one involves folk balladeer Woody Guthrie, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and a highway atlas of North America. A mystique has grown up at an Orlando high school: Athletes want to date her, beauty queens want to be her best friend, ordinary guys look at her like Bottom watching Titania trip through the forest in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” But anyone with the perspicacity of a newt would see through her at once, so the film begins with a lie. (It doesn’t help that Delevingne plays Margo as cold, smug and pouty.) When she runs away for the fifth time, Quentin decides to follow a trail of obscure clues – which she has apparently left for him – that he thinks will lead to mythical Agloe, N.Y., a spot created as a paper town on road maps of the 1930s.

As production winds down on Paper Towns in mid-December, Green has started giving the cast and crew some wrap gifts: maps that feature paper towns, the fictional cities cartographers create as copyright traps. If it has to ride a manic pixie to get there, so be it; let’s just hope the people who are infatuated with Margo at the beginning truly swallow the lesson at the end. Add the reluctant but faithful backing of Quentin’s hilarious best friends Radar and Ben (Justice Smith and Austin Abrams), and Radar’s girlfriend Angela (Jaz Sinclair), and you have what amounts to a teen detective-story-as-metaphor. He first learned about them on a college road trip, when he passed through what was supposed to be Holen, South Dakota, and found little more than fields.

In between that is a lot of reasonable, by-the-numbers stuff about growing up and learning to appreciate the people around you, given a spit polish by a group of young actors capably pulling off snottily hammy (Austin Abrams as the group’s hapless horn dog) or constantly wavering on the edge of embarrassment (Justice Smith as the obligatory hint of diversity, given the quirky touch of having parents who are trying to build the world’s biggest collection of black Santas). It’s ironic that Jake Schreier would be the director who brings this young-adult tale to life, considering that his best previous work, the underrated Robot & Frank, was an equally sympathetic treatment of an alienated, disaffected senior. The paper town featured in the novel, Agloe, New York, has also become a minor tourist attraction for book nerds, who leave notebooks and mementos; someone even made an official-looking welcome sign that Green excitedly shows off on his phone. “What’s sort of metafictional about this whole experience for me is I wrote this novel about how the way that we imagine the world shapes the world that we end up living,” Green says. “And then I have this incredibly surreal experience of having all of these things that I’d imagined become visible.” There are still black Santas scattered around set in the final days. Wolff possesses a soulful, expressive quietude that fits Quentin’s careful, observant nature, while the raspy-voiced Delevingne banishes all doubt whether, when Margo goes on the lam, she’ll land anywhere but on a flashbulb-bathed Manhattan catwalk.

The camaraderie between Q, Ben and Radar — all three outsiders from the popular cliques — is the best part of the film, with playful dialogue that has an authentic ring to it. Weber) does have a way with the mildly pathetic drama of geeky youth, the way everything is simultaneously world-changing and yet obviously not. (“It’s not a party if there’s a tuba there,” Smith ruefully notes, in maybe the best of a series of sharp lines on the limited scope of their lives.) It’s not quite enough to overcome the bait-and-preach of the central couple, but it has a bead on the misplace melancholy of teenagers all the same. While Wolff is appealing, Austin Abrams gets the biggest laughs as the diminutive Ben, whose alleged sexual exploits with a girl from Saskatchewan are cheerfully derided by his pals, and Justice Smith is wonderfully likeable as the cerebral Radar. Much of the Showtime drama has been filmed in Charlotte, which makes a convincing D.C.-area substitute, and some of Homeland’s sets have even been recycled for the movie.

For all the drama and comedy, nothing much really happens in it – other than the palpable maturation of nearly every character in less than two hours. Delevingne exudes an appropriately ethereal quality as Margo, a young woman determined to think and act outside the mainstream box of life, seeking truth in the margins.

He’s an executive producer this time, but Green says not to put too much stock in his title or the fact that he had a trailer. “I don’t think that means anything,” he says. “Seriously. Still, it’s nearly impossible to resist Green’s cheering if perfunctory message about the importance of friendship, identity and the willingness to examine our most cherished wishful thinking — even at the ripe and restless age of 18.

In addition to doing a fine job matching the actors who play young Quentin and Margo with the present-day ones, Schreier also manages no small feat in making Orlando, Fla., a rather appealing setting. What do executive producers do?” In reality, Green’s role is something like one-third consultant, one-third archivist and one-third cheerleader. “Most of my job is to be excited,” he says, and the cast agrees. “He’s like the dad who’s always about to cry,” says Jaz Sinclair, who plays Angela, one of Quentin’s classmates. “He’s so excited and encouraging. Central Cabarrus High School in Concord stands in for the Orlando school, and Charlotte actress Meg Crosbie has a supporting role as Margo’s mercenary younger sister. Though Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and Jonathan Tropper (This Is Where I Leave You) have recently joined the small club of authors who adapt their own books for films—Rainbow Rowell is also doing the same with her 2013 young-adult hit Eleanor & Park—Green won’t be doing the same. He already tried it with Paper Towns several years ago and calls the result “awful.” “I worked on it ceaselessly for six months, and I think we got further and further away from a good movie over the course of those six months,” he says. “I know what I suck at.

It’s a film that just may cause audiences of all ages to look beyond creature comforts and safe decisions to see life through fresh eyes, as a mystery worthy of constant exploration and reflection. Fans come to his home and ring the doorbell hoping to meet him, which he dislikes as the father of two young children, though he takes some of the blame for not drawing clearer boundaries between what he shares online and his personal life offline. Some of that may be helpful because it makes makes me think, ‘Okay, I need to reevaluate my thinking about this stuff,’ but some of it is just terrible and hateful and awful. The attention is probably nothing compared to the fame of his youth, anyway. “I was on a [Nickelodeon] show The Naked Brothers Band and couldn’t leave my house without getting mobbed and recognized,” he says. “It was kind of cool and kind of weird, then it went away. It’s nice that people want to see the things that I am in and that they want to talk to me, but that’s not the thing to be focused on.” It was Schreier’s idea to have the cast live together in the same apartment building. “I like the idea of forming a compound somewhere and staying in it, especially in a movie that’s about friendship and trying to form these bonds,” Schreier says.

The actors ate dinner together, watched movies together, constantly hung out in each others’ apartments and played numerous rounds of cornhole in Charlotte. Wolff says it’s rare to find that kind of chemistry: “With every movie that I’ve ever been apart of, they always say in all the interviews, ‘We got along so well and went to dinner every night,’ and 95 percent of the time it’s not true. They weren’t successful, and apartment managers weren’t thrilled when they saw the actors using what looked like a real gun in security-camera footage.

Neighbors also made frequent noise complaints, and at the time of our interview, Wolff says they all had one strike left. “It makes us sound like we are wild partiers,” Wolff says. “I have been on those sets where kids are getting drunk all the time time, and it wasn’t like that.

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