Teen drama ‘Paper Towns’ imparts its lessons with self-effacing modesty

24 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

About That Time a Snake Pooped on Cara Delevingne.

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.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 New Yorker dubbed him “The Teen Whisperer.” One headline described him as “Teenager: Aged 36.” And his name has become synonymous with a phenomenon in young adult fiction — the so-called “John Green effect” — which describes a trend toward honest, relatable characters he’s said to have inspired (though some have argued his share of the spotlight is disproportionate). 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. 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”).

But as her star continues to rise, people will soon discover that the Paper Towns and Suicide Squad actress has a side to her that has very little to do with the high-powered world of modeling. 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. Produced on a $15 million budget and grossing more than $300 million in ticket sales, that adaptation thrust Green from best-selling author and Internet personality to king of the YA box office. In this interview with Seth Meyers, the actress says she was disappointed she didn’t get to spend more time at Comic-Con and is especially sad she didn’t get to walk around in costume.

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. 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. 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. Here’s the status of the rest of Green’s novels vis-à-vis silver screen reimaginings: Looking for Alaska (2005): Paramount Pictures bought the rights to Green’s first novel, about a teenaged boy who leaves his boring life for boarding school and meets an enigmatic young woman, the same year the book was published. Nat Wolff, good enough in Fault, Palo Alto and the upcoming Grandma to make you say — who is this kid, he’s got something — stars as Quentin Jacobson, Q for short.

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. The project has cycled through a few different screenwriters and directors, but the latest reports suggest that the script will be penned by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Q is the risk-averse Orlando nerd who’s been crushing on the wild child next door, Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), since he was nine and they found a dead body together (no cancer, the dude shot himself).

She actress also describes how photo shoots with live animals are something she quite enjoys, and while her anecdotes about bears and tarantulas are great, the story of how, when she was six, a snake pooped on her stomach is the best of all. With the help of his two best buds, Radar and Ben, and Margo’s ex-BFF, Lacey, Quentin is determined to track Margo down, following a trail of clues she’s left behind.

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. When Margo disappears one day, after roping Quentin into one last epic night of creative mayhem waged against her perceived enemies, he besottedly comes to believe that she secretly wants to be found — by him and him only. 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. 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. 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). Ultimately, the movie didn’t come together with East of Doheny, but Green reports on his website that he is working with a different production company now, though the actual movie is “a long way off.” Will Grayson Will Grayson (2010): Green’s novel with Levithan is the only one of his books that has not been optioned for a movie. Unnaturally, Margo’s former best friend, Lacey (Halston Sage) comes too, though Margo has just coated her car in Saran Wrap and left a note saying their relationship is over.

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. Though there doesn’t appear to be any kind of grassroots campaign to make it one—surprising, given the fervor Green’s fans feel for his work—the story of two teens who share a name did at least get the spin-off treatment. When Margo doesn’t show up at school — even with prom and graduation coming — Q follows her clues, involving Walt Whitman and Woody Guthrie, to a small New York town that’s not even on the map (cartographers create such fictional towns to protect against copyright infringement, hence paper towns).

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. In March, Levithan released Hold Me Closer, a musical novel which offers fans the full script of a musical one of Grayson’s characters is writing in the book. 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.

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. At 37, Green shows no signs of slowing his roll — and may well give us reason to write a variation of the very same article, a decade from now, about his next five books. 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. Ok, Paper Towns plays it safe, but its leads are irresistible so we’re never sorry. 2015 may not bring everything that Back to the Future II promised it would: flying cars, self-lacing shoes, we don’t see ’em happening over the next 12 months. (Then again, don’t bet against Nike.) But this year will definitely pack plenty of punch when it comes to cultural happenings. 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.

Mad Max will roar back out of the apocalypse while Mad Men rides off into the sunset, rock’s Antichrist Superstar and hip-hop’s Yeezus will rise again. 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. After graduating from college in 2001, Joshua Cohen lived in Eastern Europe for six years, writing fiction, filing overseas dispatches for The Jewish Daily Forward and generally avoiding the Web — he didn’t even have a dial-up connection. He found the Web’s unrelenting creep so unnerving that he considered going back to Europe. “I realized I didn’t have enough money to buy a ticket,” says Cohen, 34, drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes at a bar near his home in Red Hook, Brooklyn, one recent afternoon, “and I had shipped all my stuff home on a boat.” Cohen still avoids social media, and his wariness of the Web suffuses Book of Numbers, about a failed novelist-turned-ghostwriter named Joshua Cohen who’s working on the memoirs of another Joshua Cohen, the founder of a Google-like company called Tetration. (Cohen himself worked as a ghostwriter for two Holocaust survivors.) The novel wears its postmodernism lightly. 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.

It’s a page turner about life under the veil of digital surveillance, complete with a plotline about Tetration helping the government spy on citizens. If WikiLeaks allowed citizens to see what the government was up to, Cohen reasoned, the government can also see everything we do. “It’s a law of the Internet,” Cohen says. “Transparency cuts both ways.” For the Tetration founder, who’s referred to as “Principal” by his ghostwriter, Cohen invented a frequently hilarious voice full of Web-friendly slang: “msg,” “brogrammer,” “algy” for algorithm. “I took a little piece of Jobs, took a little piece of Bezos, took a little piece of Zuckerberg,” Cohen says. 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. With a signature pair of thin-rimmed round glasses and a tendency to speak in numerically ordered bullet points, Cohen sometimes comes off like a particularly devout tech CEO, despite a pedigree that would suggest anything but. Cohen’s early fiction touched on creative frustration and religious conflict, as well as his dark view of the Web: In one short story, a journalist investigates the lives of his favorite porn stars, only to discover they’re somehow less real in person than onscreen.

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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