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REVIEW: PAPER TOWNS Is For Romantics Only, Cynics Need Not Apply

Do you remember what it was to be young and alive with limitless possibilities laid out ahead of you? Was the road to adult happiness smoothly paved with clear directions and signage, or did your journey take you on an off-road adventure? Did you really even live if you didn’t push the boundaries of your own comfort zone? High school is the time where a large portion of us experience a coming-of-age – our very first emotional reckoning. This is ground zero for director Jake Schreier’s PAPER TOWNS. Based on the popular novel by John Green (The Fault In Our Stars), Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s cinematic adaptation relies heavily on both nostalgia (for the adults) and naïveté (for the teens) to get its points across. Despite the novel espousing the exact opposite, it’s as if there’s a sign in this film’s window, “Romantics wanted; cynics need not apply.”

“Everyone gets one miracle,” extols Quentin (Nat Wolff, who’ll be playing my brother Josh in the movie of my life), or “Q” as his pals call him. Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne, who resembles the love child of Mariel Hemingway and Zac Efron) is his miracle. She’s his estranged childhood manic pixie dream girl – the girl next door with eyebrows on fleek who’s he’s put on pedestal all these years, radiating warmth, disarming beauty and golden light. And boy does she exploit it one random night senior year when she enlists his help in exacting revenge on her cheating boyfriend and the friends who didn’t tell her. However, after the best night of Q’s life (according to Margo), she disappears without a trace – or so he thinks, until he finds her carefully-placed clues about her location. What else is a straight-laced boy to do but break the rules, pile into his mom’s minivan with besties Radar (Justice Smith) and Ben (Austin Abrams), Radar’s girlfriend Angela (Jaz Sinclair), and Margo’s friend suffering from #PrettyGirlProblems, Lacey (Halston Sage), and hit the road to solve the mystery that is Margo? Um, he could stay home because his crush is a selfish jerk.

A lot of PAPER TOWNS hinges on Margo’s likeability; Delevingne is the bees knees, but if you don’t like her character, you probably aren’t going to care about the mystery quest to find her. You’ll be urging cutie Q to forget this girl (who obviously doesn’t care about anyone but herself) and move on. Life isn’t about looking back, it’s about going forward – and it’s clear she wants no part of his. If you do empathize with her, oh honey. I can’t agree with her cowardly flight reflexes. Q’s narration and a handful of other dubious dialogue are more annoyances, tending to overstate things we’ve already seen (like Margo’s love of mysteries and Q’s quest to break out of his comfort zone) and strike a few false notes. What nine-year-old girl says, “The strings inside him must have all broke?” It also borrows the peeing-in-the-car scene from FOR A GOOD TIME CALL…but the teens watching this will probably be oblivious.

Pacing is also a problem plaguing the picture. The dead body the pair discover as young kids isn’t given the gravitas it needs. While it doesn’t affect Q at all (who’s the real crazy person?), this is a turning point in Margo’s character – the loss of her childhood naïveté – and yet it’s never revisited. The set up is like STAND BY ME after they find the dead body, but then what transpires is unrelated. Figuring out Margo’s clues takes an interminable amount of screen time – even by realistic standards – and drags down the second act. The audience is way ahead of the Scooby gang on this case. It takes a full hour to get to the most energetic part of the narrative. Once the gang hits the road, the film is for the better. Q’s pals, who feel like “movie friends” with all their twee quirks for quirks’ sake in Act One, finally ingratiate themselves to us. Characters become more interesting and endearing rather than grating. Depth is developed. Chemistry is seen. Dimensional aspects are expanded upon. Plus, there’s a fun cameo at a gas station (cough, cough, he’s so hot right now).

Existing in a post John Hughes-ian era (the source it takes some cues from), the romdram roadcom at times pushes its earnestness and artificial honesty a tad beyond my cynical comfort zone. But with a killer five-star soundtrack, it’s bound to strike a chord with its target audience. On paper this story may have worked better; however, in execution, it feels almost as empty as those Paper Towns.

3 out of 5

PAPER TOWNS opens on July 24.

 

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