Opening this weekend:
Paper Towns—Orlando high school senior Quentin has been in love with his across-the-street neighbor Margo since they were little. One night Margo slips in through Quentin’s bedroom window and presses him into service on a spree of vengeful pranks against a cheating boyfriend and others she feels have betrayed her. We’re meant to see her acts, which include vandalism and sneaking into people’s homes, as whimsical and adorable, but they’re the sort of thing that could easily take an ugly turn and end up a Dateline NBC true crime documentary.
After this wild night, Margo runs away from home, but she leaves Quinten a string of implausible-to-follow clues—highlighted passages in Walt Whitman and the like—as to her whereabouts. Eventually he and his friends mount a road trip to locate her, joined, to their amazement, by a couple of girls.
Margo seems intended in the tradition of Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve, Barbara Striesand in What’s Up, Doc? or, in a slightly darker vein, Melanie Griffith in Something Wild—the screwball heroine who pulls a stick-in-the-mud hero into wacky adventures. But Cara Delevingne, who plays her, isn’t Hepburn, or Stanwyck, or Striesand. She isn’t even Melanie Griffith.
She’s a vaguely sullen, unenergetic girl, and Quentin’s fascination with her is the least interesting and convincing strand of this adaptation of the 2008 novel by John The Fault in Our Stars Green. Near the end there’s a belated attempt to put some adult perspective on this adolescent conceit, but it’s still the hinge on which the movie has turned, and grownups in the audience are likely to feel that if it was our kid, we’d want to cuff him upside the head.
Fortunately, Nat Wolff, who plays Quentin, hits just the right balance between callow openheartedness and reflexive A-student anxiety. His scenes with Austin Abrams and Justice Smith as his pals Ben and Radar are truly funny, with their gentle, almost delicate ribbing of each other, and the unembarrassed affection it denotes. And since this ensemble work makes up the lion’s share of Paper Towns, the film is a good deal more digestible than it has the right to be.
The title, by the way, refers to a fascinating cartographer’s technique of which I had never heard—a fictitious location included on a map as a defense against unauthorized copying. The phrase is given a deeper resonance here through a speech by Margo which is essentially a rephrasing of the Malvina Reynolds song “Little Boxes.” Margo, of course, has the excuse of being a teenager, but that doesn’t make the judgment any less presumptuous.