Paper Towns tells a smarter story than it initially seems to, but by the time viewers grasp the point, they may be too lulled by the film's soundtrack of soulful indie tunes to care. Unlike last year's surprise hit The Fault in Our Stars — also based on a best-selling John Green novel — Paper Towns lacks the sure hook of young characters facing down imminent death. Instead, this adaptation by director Jake Schreier (Robot & Frank) is powered by familiar first-love tropes and a literary conceit that works better on the page than on the screen.
A voiceover introduces us to Quentin (Nat Wolff), a Floridian high school senior who expresses his personal faith in hushed, American Beauty tones: "Everyone gets a miracle." Quentin's personal miracle is Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), a cadaverous, hyperarticulate beauty who moved to his sterile subdivision when they were children, pulled him briefly into the orbit of her restless imagination, and then promptly ditched him to join the popular crowd.
Quentin's pining for this paragon is (sort of) rewarded years later, when Margo appears at his window and enlists his assistance for a manic night of trespassing, pranking and score settling. The next morning, she's gone, leaving Quentin an enigmatic trail of clues to follow.
Quentin sees himself as Margo's soul mate because they both seek meaningful lives in a world of people and places that often seem to exist more on paper than in reality. Thence the literary conceit: "Paper towns" are fictitious ones that cartographers add to maps as traps for plagiarists. One such "town," or actually glorified crossroads, figures in the plot.
But the real core of both book and film isn't that metaphor, or the bond between the two young people, or the self-conscious references to famous nonconformists such as Walt Whitman and Woody Guthrie. It's the playful ribbing among Quentin and his two geeky pals, Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith), who join him on his hunt despite their skepticism. All three are talented actors — particularly Wolff, who played the hero's buddy in Fault. Their rapport is lively and believable, sometimes suggesting a (regrettably) PG-13 version of the classic hangout movie Diner.
If only Quentin's quest were as compelling. Green has his reasons for depicting Margo through Quentin's eyes, as an obscure object of desire rather than a real teenage girl. Delevingne certainly works as the former. But it would take considerably more dynamism than she possesses to pull off dialogue such as a lament about the aforementioned paper-thinness of 21st-century life: "Everyone demented with the mania of owning things."
The film offsets these moody-teen platitudes with the eventual revelation that superficiality goes deeper (so to speak) than Quentin ever realized. But the route to that climax — or anticlimax — needs more roadside attractions.
Sense of place features largely in the novel, which pivots on an actual road trip. Yet Schreier doesn't give us strong visual impressions of Orlando's plasticky overdevelopment, the freedom of the road or the unadorned bleakness of upstate New York. The abandoned strip mall where Quentin searches for clues doesn't stifle us with the heavy atmosphere of desolation and foreclosed potential that it has in the book.
As a result, Paper Towns never develops the urgency it needs to carry us through a story that is, in the last analysis, not terribly eventful. That leisurely pace is fine when Quentin and his friends are just shooting the shit. But every time the focus turns again to our hero's pursuit of his very own "miracle," the film's guiding conceit feels closer to paper-thin. To its credit, Paper Towns ends up debunking the fantasy of quirky exceptionalism that drives so many films about adolescence. It just doesn't replace that fantasy with anything more solid.