“Paper Towns,” the latest film written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (“500 Days of Summer”), has already been compared countless times to their last movie, “The Fault In Our Stars.” In many ways, these comparisons are valid — same writers, based on novels by the same author. The biggest similarity, though, lies in the change each story undergoes in its adaptation. Like “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Paper Towns” is a solid and reliably charming coming-of-age film that has had its message diminished in favor of conventional entertainment.
Directed by Jake Schreier (“Robot & Frank”), “Paper Towns” tells the story of high school senior Quentin Jacobsen (Nat Wolff, slightly less engaging than his supporting role in “The Fault in Our Stars”), who has been infatuated with childhood friend Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne, “Anna Karenina”) since she moved in across the street. After Margo knocks on his window late one night, Q and Margo share an evening of adventure and rebellion. The following week, though, Margo disappears, and Q becomes determined to unravel the mystery and find her.
The grand lesson of the novel is that Margo doesn’t need rescuing from a narcissistic teenage boy bent on saving a damsel in distress and ultimately being rewarded with her eternal affection. It’s no wonder that Neustadter and Weber are hired again and again to write these adaptations of Green’s novels (they’re currently working on “Looking for Alaska”). In many ways, they’re ideally suited to the task, having proven themselves on “500 Days of Summer,” which in many ways is a more adult version of this same story. “Paper Towns” is a comparable evisceration of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, and it similarly features a protagonist who’s harmless and likable until the third act, when it becomes obvious how misguided he is in his perceptions about women and romantic relationships.
The script does preserve this message in its ending, but it stumbles far more than Neustadter and Weber’s previous films did. To be fair, “The Fault in Our Stars” also waters down its message of humanity from the novel, but it makes up for that with a powerful, deeply emotional central plot, full of romance and tragedy. “Paper Towns” might be more thoughtful than its predecessor in its contentment to veer away from melodrama, but in return, there’s not enough genuine emotion to leave much of an impression. People won’t leave the theater in tears, which is okay, but many of them won’t leave with much of a response at all.
The main problem is that the thematic potency of the story is almost exclusively relegated to the third act, in which, during a dialogue over the course of a few minutes, Q learns all he needs to know about how to treat women, how to treat people in general and why all his actions over the course of the past month have been harmful and erroneous. By the time Q says the book’s iconic mantra in voiceover — “What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person” — it rings slightly false because it feels like he learned that just a moment ago. There’s no time for the message to sink in, and when the audience <em>does</em> realize how selfish Q has been, it doesn’t feel inevitable, like the whole story has been building towards this moment of self-awareness. Aside from some earlier scenes including a dream about Margo thanking Q for finding her and Q saying that he loves Margo, there isn’t much of an indication that Q’s way of thinking is inherently harmful.
It doesn’t help that Q’s friends, in many ways, seem to encourage him in his misguided quest to find Margo. Ben (Austin Abrams, “The Kings of Summer”) is originally the one to suggest that Margo is sending Q a message, and Radar (newcomer Justice Smith) repeatedly indulges him, helping him carry out his delusions of grandeur and achieve his unrealistic fantasies. It’s hard to force Q to accept the entire blame when all his friends play such a large role in pushing him further, and making Q accept responsibility for his actions is the whole point of the story.
That said, the supporting characters do show hints of skepticism that prevent them from becoming too unlikable or relieving Q of all the blame. In a nice understated scene, Ben tells unnecessary romantic interest Lacey (Halston Sage, “Neighbors”), Margo’s best friend, that she’s too good for Margo. In possibly the best scene of the film, Radar tells Q that he tagged along on their road trip to find Margo not because he felt Margo was truly deserving of their efforts, but because he wanted to have a good time with his best friends.
Ben, Radar and Lacey are often the most fun part of the movie when Q is too wrapped up in Margo and Margo herself is nowhere to be seen. Abrams plays Ben as a stereotypically sex-obsessed teenage boy until he shows shades of complexity later on, and Smith is an endearing straight man with his deadpan delivery and the compulsive honesty of his character. The whole cast shares a chemistry that occasionally makes it easy to forget the surface-level roles they play.
Like with the rest of the movie, the end of “Paper Towns” is entertaining but frustrating. The perfect melancholic, bittersweet ending from the book is instead followed by a cheesy slow-motion prom scene that distracts from the poignant message and ends on a note of “yay, we’re all friends and we all love each other!” “Paper Towns,” both as a novel and as a film, pairs a lively and funny cast of characters with surprisingly profound messages about our inability to perceive people as the complex and uncategorizable creatures they are. In translating a meaningful book into a movie, the message has certainly been diluted, but it’s still there somewhere.