I was small part of the male population that really enjoyed The Fault in Our Stars (review here). I read the book by John Green first — and found it both moving and funny — before watching the film, which was still impactful because of its two likable leads, played by Shailene Woodley and Ansel Engort. Not to be forgotten from the film is Nat Wolff, who nearly stole the show as the blind romantic and the best friend of Engort’s character.
The success of the book and the film is the reason we now have Paper Towns, an adaptation of Green’s earlier 2008 novel of the same name. This time, Nat Wolff — said to have recently landed the role of Light in the Hollywood adaptation of the awesome Japanese manga Death Note — is rewarded with the lead role as Quentin, a graduating high schooler who has long pined after his neighbour and the most popular girl in school, Margo (Cara Delevigne).
It’s of course a coming-of-age story about youngsters on the verge of adulthood discovering who they are and who they want to be. It has your usual adolescent themes of friendship, love and sex, and tries to navigate this path with fairly typical humour and bittersweetness.
Given the success of Stars, Wolff’s performance in that, the return of same writing team (Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber) , and the rising reputation of Delevigne as Hollywood’s next “it” girl, there was every reason for me to be optimistic about Paper Towns.
Which is why it’s unfortunate that I have to say I didn’t like the movie at all despite accepting that it is well-intentioned. I had hoping that it would be another Perks of Being a Wallflower experience (review here), full of sweet nostalgia and insightful relationships and characters. Instead, I found Paper Towns to be actually kind of boring, a little contrived, often nonsensical and lacking a sense of groundedness.
Part of the problem comes from the treasure hunt-themed plot, in which not a whole lot happens for a very long time and is really far-fetched. I’m all for romanticising the high school experience in movies, but I think Paper Towns takes it a little too far and eschews too many realities and practicalities of life to make the story believable.
The other problem I had was with the characters. The performances were fine, but Wolff’s character did not strike me as a likable protagonist. In Stars he was affable; here he’s more of a typical nerdy hero but without the endearing qualities.
Cara Delevigne can apparently do it all and looks surprisingly student-like in this movie, and to her credit you can see why she’d be the most popular girl in school. However, that doesn’t make her likable, and if she’s not likable, that makes it hard for audiences to support Quentin’s quest to win her over.
I actually liked the supporting actors — Austin Abrams and Justice Smith — who played Quentin’s friends more than the leads, though Halston Sage, who plays Margo’s “I’m pretty but I want people to know I’m smart” best friend, failed to convince me.
Rather than a touching, heartwarming, Paper Towns struggled to maintain my interest. To be fair, much of the dialogue is probably as mushy as that of Stars, though for some reason it moved me there but made me cringe here. When the most enjoyable part of a movie is when three teen geeks perform a drunken rendition of the Pokemon theme you know the film is in trouble.
Ultimately, Paper Towns is a film that would never have been made without the success of Stars. It’s nowhere near as atrocious as Stephenie Meyer’s The Host (which wouldn’t have seen the light of day without Twilight), though it’s also nowhere near as enjoyable or compelling as I thought it would be.
2 stars out of 5