PAPER TOWNS Movie Review – A Teenage Life More Ordinary
More than fifty years ago, Hannah Arendt, scholar, humanist, and critic, wrote eloquently about the “banality of evil” in reference to social psychology, authoritarianism, and fascism. She could never have imagined another kind of banality, not of evil, but of mediocrity, abject mediocrity permeating pop culture, chief among them the pop culture centered on YA (Young Adult) novels, film adaptations, and their shared fanbases, eagerly embracing faux-profound life lessons and comfort food-level diversions and digressions, all while ignoring, avoiding and otherwise evading the real world outside the printed or electronic page or their ever present cell phone screens, a world filled to overflowing contradictions and complexities, each one containing multitudes (and not in the Walt Whitman sense of the word). But here we are, with yet another YA adaptation, Paper Towns, brought to us courtesy of the unfertile, shallow mind of John Green (The Fault in Our Stars).
When we first meet Paper Towns’ central character, Quentin “Q” Jacobsen (Nat Wolff), he’s in full-on narrator mode, rambling on about the girl next door (actually across the street), Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), his very own “manic pixie dream girl” (minus, perhaps, the “pixie” part). From the outside looking in (and Quentin’s always the observer, never the participant), Margo seems to lead a charmed life. She’s popular, as in high-school popular, but she’s also the class rebel, going her own way and doing her own thing, living a life filled with mysteries and adventures, albeit mostly safe, sanitized mysteries and adventures. To Quentin, Margo represents an unobtainable romantic ideal, but he fails to realize, let alone recognize (he’s often clueless, often self-absorbed), that abstract ideals and the objective world rarely intersect or align. Then again, he’s also a classic child of (white) privilege, materially comfortable, with a bright, planned-out future ahead of him, and an absence of trauma or discomfort behind him. He’s not perfect, of course. He’s socially awkward and physically clumsy, especially around members of the opposite (cis) gender.
Margo flips Quentin’s life upside down when, after a solid nine years of ignoring him, she slips into his bedroom, offering him the role of a teenaged lifetime: Her partner in crime and/or pranks on the fellow high schoolers who’ve wronged her (because in high school even the most minor of slights and/or transgressions must be punished). Quentin, of course, can’t say no to Margo. As dawn approaches, Quentin’s hopes of pairing up with Margo romantically seem all but certain, but after parting with Margo, she doesn’t show up for class. Margo’s absence, however, proves to be permanent, spurring a newly reinvigorated Quentin to find Margo. Quentin enlists his best friends/obligatory sidekicks, Ben (Austin Abrams), a serial prevaricator and typical horndog, and Radar (Justice Smith), oddball ordinaire, to join him. Before long, the clues Quentin obsessively gathers points to one of the “paper towns” of the title, fictional towns added by cartographers to prevent copyright infringement.
Paper Towns eventually segues from suburban mystery drama (minus the drama) to one of the least eventful, meaningful road trips ever put on film or on the printed page. Joined by Radar’s girlfriend, Angela (Jaz Sinclair), and Margo’s onetime best friend, Lacey (Halston Sage), Quentin, Ben, and Radar head out in the family minivan for parts known. At least in fiction, road trips function as handy stand-ins for the central characters’ inner journey toward enlightenment, spiritual or otherwise. Instead, Paper Towns’ road trip meanders, wanders, and rambles through incident-free plot “turns.” Mysteries too must, at minimum, end with an answer, answers, or ambiguity (assuming proper thematic linkage, of course). Paper Towns resolves its central mystery with banality, with a woefully underwritten conversation and the equivalent of the “it’s the journey, not the destination” ending with comforting platitudes and uplifting affirmations for its lightly challenged protagonist and his one-dimensional friends.
For all of its debilitating, nearly fatal weaknesses, Paper Towns benefits from a modestly talented cast expending A-level (if non-award-worthy) effort to breathe the approximation of cinematic life to Green’s bland, dull, insipid prose, themes, and ideas. A steady diet of carefully cultivated indie-pop also helps to elevate Paper Towns from the almost unwatchable to the nearly bearable. Unfortunately for Green and by extension, moviegoers, though, cancer-stricken, poetic-minded teens are nowhere to be found. Without that automatic narrative and emotional hook, Paper Towns never acquires the poignancy, let alone the literal life-or-death stakes, that made The Fault in Our Stars a resonant box-office hit last year.