In 2001, Wes Anderson introduced movie audiences to Margot Tenenbaum, the beautifully mysterious and near mythical object of affection of her step-brother, Richie Tenenbaum. Fourteen years later, the target market teenagers for “Papers Towns,” who likely haven’t seen Anderson’s film, get their own Margot with Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne). She’s approaching her final year of high school and like Margot, has also lived an epic life, which included a three year stint with a circus, but unlike Anderson, screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, adapting the novel by John Green, mistake the allure of Margot/Margo type characters as being automatically bewitching. Anderson embraced the flaws and poor decisions made by Margot, which in turn never make her wholly likeable, but at least relatable. However, in “Paper Towns,” the deification of Margo tips too far to one side, souring the movie with a selfish character that also acts as something of a MacGuffin to the coming-of-age of one moon-eyed teen.
That teen is Quentin (Nat Wolff), who as he informs us in the sporadically used voiceover, had the “miracle” happen of Margo moving in across the street when he was a kid. The young man was instantly smitten and the pair forged a fast friendship, but as high school draws to a close, they’ve grown apart. But soon Q, as he’s nicknamed, has a teen male fantasy come true — Margo comes in through his bedroom window one night, but not for what you might think. She needs his help to exact a series of rather extreme acts of revenge on her ex-boyfriend who cheated on her while they dated for a few months, while also targeting others in her circle who knew about the illicit affair. A rather involved series of scenes follows that are supposed to be triumphant acts of justice, but Q is rightfully reluctant, and Margo’s insistence, sold as some kind of living life to the fullest lesson, comes off as unnaturally retributive. But the morning after the nighttime adventure happens, something curious happens — Margo completely disappears.
It’s at this point you’ll have to swallow that Margo’s parents care so little for her that they decide to not to file a missing persons report (because she has run away before, and she’ll be back, so whatever) and that nobody else seems all that concerned that one of the most popular girls in school has just vanished. But Quentin thinks that the mystery loving and mischievous Margo has left a series of clues behind, and if he connects the dots, he’ll be able to find her. And working with his best buds, the horny Ben (Austin Abrams), the nerdy Radar (Justice Smith), and Margo’s bestie Lacey (Halston Sage), the team endeavors to find the adventurous young woman, with Quentin planning to declare his love the moment he spies Margo, who has long held his heart.
As hard as “Paper Towns” tries to romanticize this elaborate scheme, or perhaps capture that teenage feeling of whimsy, endless possibility, and unvarnished romance, it never succeeds in its aims. And that’s due to the fact that outside Margo, you couldn’t ask for a more squeaky clean bunch of teens. Q, Ben, and Radar have never skipped a day of school, only have one scene of actual conflict (that’s resolved moments later), and are otherwise mostly dull vehicles to carry the narrative. Only Q gets an arc of any real consequence, but the revelation he comes to about Margo, and his life in general, occurs so late in the film, that not even the patched on voiceover that attempts to seal the Big Lesson of the picture, can make it land. When Ben tells Lacey at one point, “Margo doesn’t deserve a friend like you,” it’s the only true moment in the film. And frankly, Margo doesn’t really deserve any of these characters in the film. Her act of running away, coupled with her statements about what she feels is a false life in suburban Orlando, actively rejects the choices made by those around her. So, if she can’t respect how her friends choose to life their lives, it’s difficult to fathom why Quentin or Lacey, especially the former who otherwise hasn’t had much in the way of communication with her for years, should suddenly become more deeply concerned than the authorities.
Director Jake Schreier does adequate work behind the camera, but mostly gets out of the way to let the story unfold. The performances as well are mostly fine, but also do little more than advance the story. Abrams and Smith do what they can with their one dimensional sidekick roles, while Wolff rides by on his scruffy charm, but not much else, which makes it difficult for his turn to have any sustain. If there is any highlight, it might just be the soundtrack, which doesn’t just lay down a bunch of contemporary tunes so they can be packaged as additional revenue (though there is some of that too). One memorable selection is Robin Pecknold‘s haunting cover of Joanna Newsom‘s “On A Good Day” used during a poignant moment, which works quite well. And while an obvious choice for a roadtrip, any song by The War On The Drugs can’t be argued.
However, they are fleeting moments in a movie overloaded with character quirks (Radar’s parents collect Black Santas! Margo defies the rules of capitalization!), particularly overwrought or on-the-nose dialogue (“I’ve never come across anybody that cares about anything that matters,” Margo laments in one scene; her habit of speaking in sage-like psalms becomes grating, quickly), and within the first thirty minutes, Margo is already leaning out of the window of a car, letting the the wind run through her hair with symbolic freedom, enacting the kind of cliché she so actively tries to avoid. Manufactured and manicured to appeal to the teenage fans of Green’s book, “Paper Towns” is so polished and edgeless, that even Margo herself would look at the finished product, and question its authenticity. [D]