Baby, I know you’re into it
Chasing a love you’ll never get
She’s playing your heart just a little bit
Your Mona Lisa, your Mona Lisa
Well, she’s got games you’ll never win,
The key to your heart she holds within
She’s leaving you outside looking in,
Your Mona Lisa, your Mona Lisa
–“Mona Lisa” by Little Daylight
Paper Towns comes to us from screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, adapting a novel written by John Green. If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because all three writers previously collaborated on last year’s surprise hit, The Fault in Our Stars. Even better, one of the stars of Fault makes a cameo appearance as a joke in the third act. So of course a few comparisons are going to come up.
That said, it’s worth noting that Fault director Josh Boone did not join the crew this time. No, Towns was helmed by another newbie director named Jake Schreier, whose only previous film was a little picture called Robot & Frank. As one of the few people who saw that movie, I can tell you that it was a superbly cast, thoroughly polished, hopelessly tone-deaf misfire ruined by awful characters.
So really, Paper Towns has more in common with Frank than with Fault.
This is the story of Quentin (Nat Wolff, yet another Fault alumnus and my own personal doppelganger). The film begins with Quentin as a young boy, when Margo Roth Spiegelman (played by former model and future supervillain Cara Delevingne) moves in across the street. He immediately falls in love with her, like any grade school boy would do, and they become friends.
Flash forward to senior year of high school. The two have grown farther apart, but not for any hard feelings. He’s still in love with her, but the two are such incredibly different personalities and they run in such different circles that there never seemed to be a chance for the two of them to connect. Then, for the first time in a decade, Margo climbs in through Quentin’s bedroom window, asking for him to come along on some crazy scheme.
Margo’s very cryptic and slow to dispense details, but here’s the gist of it: Her boyfriend cheated on her. So now she’s out to pull a series of pranks on him, on anyone who knew about his cheating, and on anyone who’s ever slighted her in the past just so long as she’s at it. And she needs Quentin to come along because he has a car and she needs a getaway driver.
Now, let’s talk about these characters in greater detail. On the one hand is Margo, such a wild and independent spirit that she deliberately writes with random capitalization and grammar because fuck authority, I guess. She’s a spontaneous young woman of passion who lives for mystery and adventure, doing whatever she wants in the moment and blah blah blah. On the other hand is Quentin, a straight-A student who wants to go to college, be a doctor, get married, have kids, and all that bland typical coming-of-age protagonist stuff.
So while Margo and Quentin are off on their crime spree through the first act, every scene boils down to:
Margo: Let’s do this because it’s fun and dangerous!
Quentin: Let’s stop because we might get in trouble.
Margo: I’m going with or without you.
Quentin: Fine, I’ll do this because you’re so hot.
*cut to a different location and repeat*
There are two reasons why this doesn’t work. First, the characters are too flat. They’re such tired, two-dimensional, compilations of cliches that it’s hard to take them seriously as anything else. Second, they have no chemistry. None. Wolff and Delevingne are clearly trying their best, but it’s not enough to create any kind of spark between them. Without that, it’s nowhere near plausible that Quentin would go so far out of his comfort zone and take sides in some feud that doesn’t even remotely affect him, all for the interest of this girl.
In summary, Quentin and Margo are both such broken characters that they barely work as individuals, never mind as friends or love interests. This comes back to bite the film in a huge way when Margo vanishes shortly afterwards.
Yes, Margo has conveniently disappeared without a trace just after her night of criminal mischief with Quentin. Nobody knows where to look, but it appears that Margo left behind a series of clues for Quentin to follow. So he naturally follows the clues to try and find her. Why? Good question.
At first, the characters and the audience are along for the ride because who doesn’t like a good treasure hunt, right? But in the third act, someone FINALLY thinks to ask whether this is all worth it. Why did Margo disappear in the first place? Why did she leave such elusive and cryptic instructions behind? Is it possible she doesn’t want to be found?
Perhaps most importantly, why is Quentin going to the ends of the earth for Margo? Is there even the slightest possibility that she would do the same for him?
Ultimately, this entire movie is a quest for Margo and Quentin to be reunited. That may sound all well and good at first, until we remember my earlier point: That these characters and their relationship are effectively worthless. The romance between these characters doesn’t sufficiently register enough to justify the protagonist’s motivation or his actions, which means that the entire movie falls apart instantly.
Then we have the supporting cast. The wretched, awful supporting cast.
We’ve got Radar (Justice Smith), the token black best friend character. There is absolutely nothing memorable about this guy aside from the fact that his parents are building the world’s largest collection of Black Santa merchandise. Seriously.
Radar also has a girlfriend (Angela, played by Jaz Sinclair) who has all the personality and charisma of a towel rack. The main deal there is that Radar doesn’t want her to meet his parents or his friends, because they’re the only interesting thing about him and he’s ashamed of them. So Radar isn’t only boring, he’s aggressively boring.
(Side note: Yes, his given name is “Radar”. If he has a real name or another name, it’s never mentioned.)
Then we have Lacey, played by Halston Sage. Lacey and Margo have been best friends since fifth grade, which is why it stung Margo so hard that Lacey didn’t come to Margo with the news that her boyfriend had been cheating. How Lacey could have known about that in the first place, Margo didn’t say. Anyway, the bottom line is that Margo and Quentin went and sabotaged Lacey’s car the night before Margo went missing.
And Lacey knows this. Yet she still instantly forgives the both of them and sincerely wants to help Quentin find Margo just to make sure she’s alright. Fucking what?!
The thing about Lacey is that she looks for all the world like your typical perfect supermodel high school dream girl. Yet Lacey insists that she’s not just an empty-headed blonde — she has feelings and she’s smart enough to get into a really good college. And I’d respect that if Lacey had literally anything else to bring to this movie aside from a pretty face. I don’t care if she straight-up tells me that she has a personality, I only have her word to go on and that’s not much.
Last but not least is Ben (Austin Abrams). I hate this little shit. I hate this sex-obsessed “comic relief” who only refers to women as “honey bunny” and only thinks of them as sexual objects. I hate how he brags about his imaginary sexual conquests like any man, woman, or child would go anywhere near him. I hate how Quentin befriended this annoying, syphilitic, odious, hideous, obnoxious bucket of piss (No, really, he has to pee constantly because of an old kidney infection. Isn’t that hilarious?!) and insisted on bringing him along throughout the entire film. I hate how this horrible, awful, unrepentant slimeball delivered one joke after another, all of them varying degrees of painful and/or offensive.
With every word he spoke, I wanted to split his ugly unibrow with a lead pipe before shoving it down his filthy, perverted mouth. And then, after all of that, he actually got a girlfriend. How could anyone so disgusting, overtly sexist, and ungodly annoying possibly get a date? Not only is it implausible, it’s tone-deaf. I can only speak for myself, of course, but I didn’t want to see Ben get the girl. I wanted to see him go to hell and die.
To be fair, I don’t believe that the filmmakers actively set out to offend anyone. I really do think that they set out to try and craft a story that teenagers could be inspired by and learn something from. And there are a couple of moments that almost work. The most prominent example comes with the lesson that plans can be altered and rules can be broken. That skipping a school day or missing a quiz probably won’t be the end of the world. Hell, someone crafty enough could get out of trouble entirely. It sounds like a questionable message on paper, but the film gets it across in a way that’s novel, subtle, and positive.
On the other hand, most of the film’s deeper statements are delivered by way of heavy-handed dialogue and gratuitous voice-over. Both were commonly utilized in Fault, granted, but at least that film had a diabolically powerful emotional hook. By the third act, the characters were so well-developed and their life-or-death conflict had such high stakes that their thoughts and ruminations about death all landed like a punch to the gut. Without any characters who are worth a damn, this film doesn’t have a plot that makes sense and it doesn’t have any thematic statements that are relevant or warranted.
Paper Towns is a failure. There are a couple of heartfelt moments here and there, and the clues to Margo’s whereabouts are admittedly laid out in an intriguing way. But the characters are all completely wretched and none of them are played by actors talented enough to redeem them. The entire plot hinges on a romance that never takes off. The comic relief is unmitigated torture from start to finish. And how am I supposed to believe any kind of deep statement when it’s coming from filmmakers who craft such boring and unsympathetic characters?
There’s no way I can recommend this. It might be worth a rental if you’re curious, but that’s it.