Towards the end of their senior year, Margo learns that her boyfriend has been cheating on her and that several of her friends knew about the relationship. Margo jumps through Q's window, and tells him that she needs a getaway driver for the nine things that she has to do to take revenge on her ex-boyfriend and former friends. Margo and Q go and do a bunch of dumb things, Q starts to fall for Margo even harder, they go up to the Sun Trust building and see the "sweet smells of corporate America" and the "paper town" that is Orlando, Florida. They dance a little, Q goes home, and the next day, Margo is gone.
She never comes back, and although she has a tendency to disappear for long periods of time, Q begins this massive search to find his "true love." Q finds a series of clues in her room and enlists the help of his friends Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith), along with Margo's friend Lacey (Halston Sage) and Radar's girlfriend Angela (Jaz Sinclair) for an epic quest that will hopefully lead them to Margo.
I hated Paper Towns and this is coming from somebody who really, and I mean really, liked The Fault in Our Stars. That was an enjoyable film, one with heart, humor and a dose of emotional poignancy. Paper Towns has none of that. It's a film that simply pummels you into submission with a massive array of cliches that make the film a borderline comedic experience. In addition, Margo and Q are two of the dumbest screen characters of the year. Actually, scratch that- Margo is just plain unlikable, a selfish brat who does more whining than anything and Q is an idiot for being in love with her. The supporting cast is fine and there are a few moments that work, but this is a true slog to get through.
Let's talk about the character of Margo for a minute. Because she's the main reason that Paper Towns is a movie that is easy to hate. Believe it or not, this is actually a well-made film. Director Jake Schreier shoots the film with a calming ease that is pretty engaging, and some of the performances aren't bad. But when you have a central story that is eye-rollingly silly and moronic, it's hard to enjoy any of the elements that were put into making the film.
Margo Roth Spiegelman, in Hollywood, is a character that would be known as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. That term was invented by film critic Nathan Rabin in 2005 after he watched Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown. Popular examples include Summer Finn in the brilliant Marc Webb film (500) Days of Summer, Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and Penny Lane in Almost Famous. The difference between Margo and all of those characters is that I didn't like Margo. Not. One. Bit. She's a terrible human being, a vengeful, selfish, immature and straight-up goofy person with a series of quirks that are downright hilarious. Here's a few examples- she doesn't like the rules of capitalization (so in turn, she capitalizes random words in sentences), she ran off and joined the circus at one point, and she believes that doing stupid things is equivalent to actually living.
The ending of the film (which is equally admirable and frustrating) tries to deconstruct Margo and her Manic Pixie Dream Girl image, but it's already too late. No matter how much Margo tells Q that he's in love with "the concept" and not the actual girl, she still fits that archetype. And Q, for being a kid with Duke-level intelligence, isn't very smart. I realize that the film leads up to Q's discovery that his pursuit of Margo was dumb, but still, his undying love for Margo throughout 98% of this film is hysterical.
That points to the fundamental flaw of Paper Towns- it thinks that if it throws in a little coda at the end to tell us that we shouldn't pursue the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and that our friends are what matter, that it makes up for the rest of the film. And it doesn't. Q does start to realize towards the second half of the film that his friends are great, but he doesn't change anything- he's still hopelessly in love with Margo. It's not until she actually flat-out tells him to stop being in love with her that he realizes "Oh, maybe I am kinda stupid."
It's what separates a bad film like Paper Towns from a good one like The Fault in Our Stars, or a great one like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. The characters learn and grow from their mistakes, but not in the literal final moments of the film. Greg changes throughout Me and Earl. He learns to stop hating himself and to look at relationships as good things, not as burdens. Hazel Grace learns to stop being so cynical about her disease and celebrate the love that is given to her, no matter what the circumstances. Q literally needs someone to smack him in the face and go "Whatsa matter with you?" to change his ways. It's almost like the filmmakers realized that their film was laughably bad and then threw in this small ending to try to make it better.
Paper Towns has moments that work incredibly well. There's a rather inspired scene that takes place at a gas station that is quite delightful, and I enjoyed the performances of Nat Wolff and the supporting cast (I wasn't a fan of Cara Delevingne, but I struggled to separate the character from the performance). And there is a bit of an emotional core towards the second half of the film that works. But that doesn't change the fact that Paper Towns is a self-serious mess, without the pathos of a film like The Fault in Our Stars and bereft of the humor and charm of other teenage flicks. Ultimately, I think that your opinion of the film will come down to your opinion of Margo. If you like her (which I don't think is possible), then you'll enjoy the movie. But if you don't, good luck with this one.
THE FINAL GRADE: D+ (4.7/10)
Image Credits: Huffington Post, Hollywood Reporter, Roger's Movie Nation, Variety, Movie Pilot