When Jack Schreier’s Robot & Frank hit our screens it felt like the beginning of something exciting. A fresh, innovative voice in the industry, managing to build a comprehensive world on such limited funds, showing off a real aptitude for ingenuity and resourcefulness. It’s therefore a great disappointment to see the director’s sophomore endeavour Paper Towns follow such a rigid formula, abiding by convention in a film we’ve seen many times before, where any sense of whimsicality is horribly contrived.
Nat Wolff plays Quentin, who has been in love with his next door neighbour Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne) ever since she first moved to the area. However as they’ve got older, they’ve taken significantly different paths, as the former is sensible and well-behaved, innocently hanging out with his two best friends Radar (Justice Smith) and Ben (Austin Abrams). Margo, on the other hand, is adventurous, elusive and wildly mischievous – and as one of the most popular girls at school, is now way out of Quentin’s league. Until one fateful night when she climbs into his window, asking for a favour.
As Wolff’s narration opens this cinematic adaptation of John Green (The Fault in Our Stars) bestselling novel, while the dreamlike, lens flared suburban street makes up the backdrop, you get a sense for Schreier’s vision; to be endearingly, and affectionately conventional, as though offering a pastiche of the genre – following all of the beats with a knowing nod, paying homage to classic high-school set movies of old. However Paper Towns becomes too imitative, and too elementary, not taking enough risks, or forming its own unique identity. It’s even comparable to the stories you’d find yourself composing in creative writing classes at school. When the teacher instructs you to write up a original story, you almost always place yourself as the hero, as an underdog, who fancies a girl way out of your league – with your two, loyal best friends on hand, ready to go on a self-indulgent adventure with you to help defy the odds and win her heart. In some ways there’s a comfortability about that, though in others, it’s all too juvenile.
The romantic narrative represents the more tedious, hackneyed half of this endeavour anyway, as the film comes into its element when studying the friendship between the three boys, with a foreboding sense of finality lingering over them, as their high school days are coming to an end, and college awaits. It’s well-judged, and there’s one scene in particular – when they’re sat by the side of a broken down car – which is poignant, and surprisingly profound.
Delevingne turns in a commendable performance though, proving that she’s not just been hired for her celebrity status, and that she can certainly act, with a gracious, beguiling screen presence that is perfectly in tune with the character at hand. It was the same with Michael Winterbottom’s The Face of an Angel – she’s actually proving to be one of the better things about a mediocre production, rather than be the mediocre thing about a good production, which had been the initial worry. That all being said, she’s been dealt with an unlikeable character in Margo, who is so contrived in her quirkiness. Like the way she writes with no care at all for grammatical consistency. Just leaves capital letters bang in the middle of a word. Why? Because she likes ‘random capitalisation’. Her words, not mine.
With shades of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, exploring the notion of a nerdy kid stepping out of his comfort zone – that had a certain enchantment to it, an ineffable charm of sorts. Paper Towns, on the other hand, not only struggles in that very department, but it’s where the film truly suffers.