“Paper Towns” is an aggressively awful film centered around one of the most wholly unlikable characters I have seen on film in some time. Margo Roth Spiegelman is a cloying, manipulative, pretentious harpy who thinks she is deeper than everyone else around her, yet shows no actually evidence of deep thought or intelligence. She uses everyone around her, and expects everyone to drop everything at a moments notice when she goes off on some inane journey, leaving “clues” behind to make sure that even though she cares nothing for the people she leaves behind, that those people will spend many a moment focused on her. Margo is the worst kind of person.
In the film, Margo is played by Cara Delevingne, who I’m told is a model. I don’t normally pick on the appearance of an actress, as it’s often a crass low-blow and unnecessary, but Delevingne is not conventionally attractive, with Peter Gallagher-esque eyebrows and a face heavily lined for a woman in her early 20s, playing 18. I honestly wouldn’t bring this up, appearance being relative to the viewer, except that Margo as a character only works if you buy into the film’s assertion that this girl is so drop dead gorgeous that she would be the most popular girl in school and cause geeks to have massive crushes on her despite her entirely unpalatable, narcissistic personality. Delevingne is not the actress for this role. I doubt any actress in the world is beautiful enough to make Margo anything other than a horrible, selfish human being, but Delevingne’s appearance is actually distractingly at a right angle to what we’re supposed to think of this character.
I read the novel “Paper Towns” by John Green, upon which this film is based, a couple of years ago. Having read and liked both “Looking For Alaska” and “The Fault in Our Stars” (the latter of which was made into a mediocre movie itself), I was disappointing to discover that “Paper Towns” felt like a phony, completely artificial effort of Green’s that was rightfully tucked into the bottom drawer of his desk until he hit it big with better books, and then let this horrible thing be published. Every moment of the novel felt clichéd, fake, hackneyed, and manipulative. The characters didn’t feel like real people, their actions didn’t feel like real, authentic human behavior, and the quirks felt like a author being too proud of himself for coming up with things that weren’t nearly as clever as the author thought they were. The film solves none of those issues, and the film even makes the novel’s bad ending worse by attempting to smooth its rough edges.
The plot involves Quentin (Nat Wolff), a nerdy kid who hasn’t really lived life because he’s shy and nerdy. He harbors a crush for Margo, who lives next door and does crazy and mysterious things like…well, mostly exit her house through her bedroom window at night. Anyone, after not talking for 9 years because Margo joins the cool crowd and leaves Quentin behind, she comes into his bedroom and asks him to help her on a night of revenge plotting. Quentin is a push-over, and Margo obviously knows he likes her and will do anything she wants, so she easily manipulates him into breaking some minor laws in order for her to get revenge on her cheating boyfriend and associated friends who betray her. For a character that is supposedly so wild and out there, her revenge is pretty lame. Wrapping a car in saran wrap? Leaving a whole fish in a closet to smell up the joint? Why not slash some tires, or chop the fish up into little bits and distribute it into the home’s ventilation system? Margo is not very creative, and her narcissism requires she mark all of her handywork with a big “M”, and leave Post-It notes with unfunny, uncreative messages (in case the “M” was confusing) where the capitalizes random letters in words. The capitalization stuff doesn’t come across as cute, or charming, or creative…it’s just a lame character trait that is one more irksome thing about this woman.
Anyway, after the revenge Margo takes Quentin to a big bank building downtown (she knows the security guard and he lets them in for some reason…it makes you wonder what Margo does for the guard to allow this). For some reason, in the middle of the night with the building largely unoccupied, muzak plays in a boardroom there. Why would muzak be piped into a boardroom as opposed to the normal place for muzak in an office building, such as nowhere else but maybe the elevator? Why is it played when the building is closed for business? So Margo and Quentin can dance, of course, but not before she delivers astonishing not-profound insights into her town and the people in it. She also makes a weak jab at Corporate America that made me wonder why, if she’s so against phoniness and Capitalism, and she has access to a large bank building, she doesn’t pull some Weather Underground, Project Mayhem shit up in this. Oh well.
So Margo disappears and Quentin is worried because he thought they were going to date now. I’m reminded of the Milhouse line from “The Simpsons”: “If I do everything she asks, she’s bound to respect me.” Margo has disappeared at least 4 times before, so her parents, rightfully, don’t care about her stupid pay-attention-to-me tantrums anymore. Quentin does, though, and wants to find her. Luckily, I guess, Margo has left clues because…because she’s a manipulative jerk who gets off on knowing people are searching for her. Proving that Margo is not deep or intelligent, she takes a metaphorical line from a Walt Whitman poem (Whitman being the poet for people who think they’re smart but aren’t) and makes it painfully literal, showing a lack of creativity, originality, or insight. Have I mentioned that I fucking HATE Margo?
Quentin has two friends; a stereotypically horny geek friend named Ben (Austin Adams) and another geeky friend called Radar (Justice Smith). Radar is given the trait that is not as clever as Green thought it was: his parents have the largest collection of Black Santa memorabilia in the world. In the book it was the SECOND largest, which is funnier, but even then it felt less like a real and clever quality, and more of something Green came up with, thought was funny, and forced into the story without it feeling organic. The friends help him on his journey and end up being unfunny comic relief. There’s also Margo’s friend Lacey (Halston Sage) who looks unlike any high school student ever. The film doesn’t know what to do with Lacey. At first it sets up that maybe Quentin will end up with Lacey instead of Margo, but then for no other reason except that every male character needs a girl, she’s inexplicable forced by the screenplay to fall for Ben. The film also tells us that she had Chlamydia once (yet she claims she’s smarter than people give her credit for…just not smart enough to use protection) and likes Pokemon, which I don’t buy for a second.
Look, I get what the INTENDED message of the film is: men project onto women what they want or fear, but need to understand that women are who they are, not what men think they are. The problem is that the women themselves in the film are not good people, and thus the film has an unintentional misogyny. Lacey is not so much a character as she is a pretty trophy for Ben, and we never are given any evidence that she is smart or deep. Radar’s girlfriend, Angela (Jaz Sinclair) isn’t portrayed negatively, granted, but she barely exists as a character. Honestly, though, they matter little compared to Margo, who isn’t in much of the film, but whose presence permeates it.
In real life, if Margo ran away as she did, eventually she would run out of her parent’s money and, if she spent as much time sleeping in ramshackle abandoned buildings as the film leads us to believe, it’d be because she was resorting to drugs or prostitution. Granted, she likely comes from money, as every character in the film seems wealthy or upper-middle class, but the film implies that her parents would cut her off at this point. She’s obviously bailed before graduation, so she doesn’t even have a high school diploma to her name. The only reason she runs away is because her boyfriend cheats on her, and she thinks everyone in her town is shallow. Boo-fucking-hoo. You’re not special, Margo. Owning some old records and reading a shitty poet don’t make you deep. Sure, her town is the only place in Florida devoid of Hispanic people, and only has two non-white residents, but she’s not so much better or more profound than where she comes from. That the film insists on treating her character as cool and interesting and not as, quite frankly, a giant piece of shit, is infuriating. In real life, Margo’s future is not glamorous and whirlwind. In real life, she’s a junkie.
The ending seems to have been toned down from the book. When *SPOILERS* Quentin finally finds Margo, the meeting is more a pleasant conversation than the argument that happens in the novel. Margo makes excuses for her actions, like that her clues are to let people know she’s okay, not to come and find her. Right. Because instead of telling people where you’re going and being direct, a series of clues hidden in door jambs and crack dens is so much more of a direct message of that. Really, her excuses reek of a woman who didn’t expect to be found, and is desperately trying to save face to rid herself of a bothersome person. The film tries to play this off as her being mostly innocuous and Quentin wrongly projecting his wishes onto her, but she’s not innocuous. Quentin is an annoying little shit who DOES wrongly project this feelings, but Margo is at least partly responsible for that, and she’s wholly responsible for manipulating him when, if she had continued leaving him alone rather than using him for her stupid revenge, he’d be fine. *SPOILERS END*
The excuse that Quentin started living because of Margo, well, he would have started living anyway. His friends still tried to convince him to come to a party, and nothing was stopping them from taking a road trip before. Sorry, but this film is not having the same live-your-life message that “It Follows” delivered so brilliantly this year. The message of “Paper Towns” is that women are either evil, stupid, or scary, and if you navigate their craziness correctly, you win them. Shit, and I thought “Pixels” was sexist.
The film on a nuts and bolts level is sloppy. The film is an alleged comedy, but there is only one joke in the film that made laugh. One. It involves a Confederate flag t-shirt. Every other joke falls flat, and it’s largely because the jokes come from clichés (the geek gets drunk for the first time at a party) and from REALLY BAD TIMING. Plus, the movie is unwise in giving us two urine-related jokes within 15 minutes. Occasionally, character motivations change for no reason, like when Radar inexplicably goes from being really concerned with keeping on schedule for the road trip to not caring if they spend the night on the side of the road after a near accident with a cow. There are often shots that are so close the film looks like a bad TV movie. The director, Jake Schreier, only directed one other film before this, and after seeing “Paper Towns” I have no desire to take a look at it. The direction and the editing of this film are poor, and that’s even if they weren’t in service to a horrendous story.
“Paper Towns” is filled with characters that are either atrocious or clichéd, the plot feels forced and phony, the direction and editing are sub par, the humor fails on all but one joke in the entire 109 minute running time, and the message is horrendous. This is the worst example of a Coming of Age film I can remember seeing in some time. Margo is the most unlikable fictional character put on film in recent memory. I weep for the teenagers who will see this film and think Margo is to be emulated, revered, or fawned over. This movie is garbage of the anger-inducing variety. D.