- Written by
- Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber
- Directed by
- Jake Schreier
- Nat Wolff, Cara Delevingne, Austin Abrams, Justice Smith
In the acknowledgments to his novel Paper Towns, John Green recognizes Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild as a "particularly helpful" book about disappearance. Indeed, the 1996 non-fiction account tells the story of California native Christopher McCandless who, after graduating from Emory University, donated his savings to Oxfam and effectively disappeared, hitchhiking to Alaska under the moniker Alexander Supertramp for an inspiring, though ill-fated, period of solitude.
Green's 2008 book – published just four years prior to his break-out novel-turned-film The Fault in Our Stars – similarly features a badass teenage transcendentalist, Margo Roth Spiegelman, who decides to quietly "tramp a perpetual journey" à la Walt Whitman right out of her paper-thin subdivision in Orlando, while her smitten neighbour sets out to find her. Green's dark mystery is poetic, incisive and wonderfully metaphor-laden.
Its cinematic counterpart – penned by The Fault in Our Stars and (500) Days of Summer screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber – is none of these things.
Directed by Jake Schreier, Paper Towns finds Fault's Nat Wolff upped to a lead role as the lovelorn Quentin Jacobsen, who has spent most of his life transfixed by the charismatic Margo (played by model Cara Delevingne, who – sorry, haters – is, for all intents and purposes, Margo), his best friend from the age of 10 until high school, when he was unceremoniously dropped once the caste system was sorted. A month out from graduation, Quentin obsesses from afar in vain until one night Margo climbs through his bedroom window and demands his help in a moonlit revenge-seeking escapade. The development is short-lived, however, as the next day Margo disappears, and while she's run away before, she now seems determined to stay away.
Soon after the vanishing, Quentin and best friends Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith) spot a carefully placed poster in Margo's bedroom blind, ultimately leading to more clues about her whereabouts (cue Woody Guthrie records and highlighted Whitman passages). But as he sets out to unravel the mystery of her escape, Quentin realizes that in order to find Margo he has to remove her from the pedestal and see her for who she really is.
Neustadter and Weber's script – remaining loyal to Green's novel in at least this regard – nicely conveys the sentimentality of those last, loaded months of high school, when every ending is rendered meaningful because no one's really sure what comes next. And to this effect, the innocent trio of Wolff, Abrams and Smith is the right combination of sweet and painfully awkward as they banter over video games and belt out the Pokémon theme song. Meanwhile, Delevingne's Margo is cool, confident and shrouded in question marks – Green's take on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl – but instead of upholding that sexist illusion like most teen-oriented fare, Paper Towns brilliantly sets out to show that this girl doesn't and couldn't really exist.
The problem, though, is that the mystery that was the book's impetus is simply not present in its big-screen adaptation, snatching away all urgency and finding a wooden Quentin going through the motions. Margo's trail of breadcrumbs is all but served on a plate in the film, and for someone supposedly risking it all (or, at least, perfect attendance and prom) for the girl of his dreams, Wolff's Quentin is pretty unperturbed. Even the road trip of the film's third act – meant to be a panicked race against the clock – seems to take the scenic route.
While Neustadter and Weber managed in The Fault in Our Stars to transpose Green's quirky dialogue and evocative philosophies to the screen in condensing the book and extracting its darker elements, they don't afford the underwhelming Paper Towns the same courtesy. Fans expecting more than a routine coming-of-age story had better prepare for a paper movie.