Simon Evans & Luke Ostler find there’s very little to recommend about Jake Schreier’s Paper Towns apart from supermodel-turned-actor Cara Delevingne’s luminous performance.
Shy teenage boys are ten a penny in Hollywood right now, and they always seem to stumble on that one life-changing experience. Just like in real life. In Paper Towns, our socially unfortunate hero Quentin experiences a whirlwind night when neighbour and lifelong love interest Margo clambers through his bedroom window and promptly pleads for assistance in taking revenge on her deceitful boyfriend and his no less virtuous pals. When Margo is mysteriously absent from school on the day following their avenging antics, he teams up with stock teenage friends Ben and Radar to investigate the mysterious clues left behind by the object of his hormonal desires.
Relative newcomer director Jake Schreier’s second film (the first being 2012’s indie success Robot & Frank) is effectively a sequel to last year’s The Fault in Our Stars. Someone in Hollywood clearly realised that film was onto a winning formula, because here is the same author (John Green) funded by the same studio (Twentieth Century Fox) and the same screenwriters (Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber). Even the posters seem to have been designed by the same focus group, cheerfully sporting youngsters with copious quantities of hair and a film title that you could believe was written by a child.
As if that wasn’t selling point enough, this film boasts the visual talents of supermodel Cara Delevingne, who has apparently decided that acting must be a more rewarding pursuit than pacing the catwalk. Nat Wolff plays Quentin, having graduated from the co-star role in The Fault in Our Stars. To build a quick and convenient rapport with the pair, a poorly acted introduction sees these two characters played by child actors (doesn’t everyone know not to work with those by now?). This saccharine sequence establishes that their once-budding relationship has since drifted due to the cautious and considered Quentin proving unable to keep up with Margo’s vibrant and far-fetched escapades.
Like Psycho, the film that made it fashionable to bump off your star after the first act (spoiler alert for those who have recently joined society from an undiscovered Amazon rainforest tribe), Paper Towns must do without the luminous Delevingne for its second and third acts, a ploy which serves mainly to cruelly expose the film’s weaknesses. It does, however, reveal her considerable potential, even in only her second lead role (the first being Michael Winterbottom’s The Face of an Angel). Delevingne is a revelation, sparkling with star quality and possessed of a magnetic appeal, with her husky delivery adding to the mystical allure of her character. But while she convinces utterly as the enigmatic Margo, the team is well and truly let down by just about every other role, both in terms of scripting and performance. This is made abundantly clear by the two-tier nature of the movie, which undergoes a startling transition between high and low quality following Margo’s disappearance.
The early revenge sequence is undoubtedly the standout portion of the film but also serves to highlight the film’s shaky grip on reality. Quentin gets away with committing what are actually crimes scot free, and in another, more accurate, aftermath that we enjoyed imagining he is instead arrested, expelled from school and bullied by his victims, culminating in the poor lad despising Margo, whom he realises has manipulated him into taking the rap for her misdemeanours. But not in this reality (or lack thereof); Margo’s friends/victims are easily out-manoeuvred, the police and Quentin’s school are seemingly oblivious, and his mother is utterly clueless.
Speaking of Quentin’s mother, and believe us when we say that nobody else does, her strange lack of any significance reminded us of the shadowy absence of the mother in recent horror success It Follows. That kind of thing makes sense in macabre setting, but not a movie that’s meant to be straight out of reality.
What seems essential to the plot, not to mention that of plenty of other recent films, is that Quentin finally casts off his shackles of shyness during his escapades with Margo, but Wolff never fully realises this quite crucial aspect of the role. When compared with the classics of the genre his performance seems positively sedentary; Tom Cruise, Jennifer Jason Leigh and John Gordon Sinclair do it so much better in Risky Business, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Gregory’s Girl respectively. Even the sumptuous Delevingne fails to stir anything resembling chemistry from Wolff, leaving his quest to find her devoid of any passion.
With the failure of the central driving force clear for all to see and the burning spark of Delevingne conspicuously absent, the success or failure of the film falls disproportionately on the supporting cast. The Way, Way Back ably demonstrated that a film can still resoundingly succeed in such circumstances, with excellent supporting performances saving it from the insipid central performance of Liam James. Turning the clock back, Andie MacDowell’s attempts to ruin Four Weddings and a Funeral and Brad Pitt’s anaemic performance in Meet Joe Black show this phenomenon has been around for a while.
Paper Towns fails even to reach the dizzying mediocrity of that category. Justice Smith, playing Radar, is underwhelmingly deadpan as the kid who tries to be under the thumb of his girlfriend, with lowlights including an odd misfiring gag about black Santa models that never fully pays off, no matter how many times the film tries to force it home. Austin Abrams does little better as Ben, a geeky fantasist who believes the second-most popular girl in school (played equally vacuously by Halston Sage) wants to go to the prom with him. In fact, if it weren’t for Cara Delevingne and her moderately successful opening act, you’d be forgiven for thinking the cinema had mistakenly screened a late-afternoon tv special.
Words by Luke Ostler & Simon Evans
Directed by: Jake Schreier
Written by: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber
Starring: Nat Wolff, Cara Delevingne, Halston Sage, Austin Abrams, Justice Smith, Jaz Sinclair
Released: 2015 / Genre: Comedy-Drama / Country: USA / IMDB