Adapted from a novel by YA writer-of-the-moment John Green and featuring model Cara Delevingne – yes, she of the magnificent eyebrows – in a key role, Paper Towns is aimed very squarely at the teen demographic. Following the success of Green’s The Fault in our Stars, which was a superior film, it seems a fair bet that we will see more adaptations of his novels hitting screens in the years ahead. Directed by Jake Schreier, written by the same team who penned the screenplay for The Fault in Our Stars – Michael Weber and Scott Neustadler – and starring that film’s Nat Wolff in the lead role as Quentin “Q” Jacobsen, Paper Towns suffers from trying to be too many things at once – comedy, romance, mystery, road movie – without ever really nailing any of them. Wolff’s Quentin is a straight-laced straight-A high school student in love with Margo (Delevingne), his childhood friend who lives across the street. Of course, Margo just happens to be everything that Quentin isn’t; popular, free-spirited and discontent with her life in suburban Orlando. The fact that she hasn’t spoken to him for years hasn’t dampened his desire one iota, so it is a very welcome surprise when Margo appears at his bedroom window in the middle of the night seeking his assistance. Whilst it is Margo who drives the narrative, she disappears for a good portion of the movie, vanishing immediately after the night with Q, which was spent enacting a revenge plot against her cheating boyfriend. This is a fun sequence as various persons become the subject of pranks in which Q becomes more and more complicit as the night progresses. It is all fairly harmless fun that takes a darker turn come morn when Margo has absconded with nary a word to anybody. Whilst there are suggestions as to why she may have uprooted, such as vile comments from Margo’s mother in declaring her daughter’s disappearance as nothing more than ‘attention seeking’, there is never any exploration of Margo’s life to provide any insight into her motivations. Make no mistake; Margo is no Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She is neither bubbly nor girlie nor particularly quirky. She is free-spirited and disillusioned with a depth to her character that is implied if never really demonstrated. With graduation looming, Q teams up with his friends Radar (Justice Smith) and Ben (Austin Abrams) to unravel a series of clues left by Margo in a bid to track her down and, in Q’s mind at least, lure her home for a life of happy-ever-after. A road trip ensues as the group, which includes Radar’s girlfriend Angela (Jaz Sinclair) and Margo’s best friend Lacey (Halston Sage), race against time to find Margo and make it home for prom.
Schreier never pushes the envelope with the material, an ongoing dialogue from Ben about wanting to have sex with Q’s mother is about as risqué as things get. In fact the biggest problem with the film is just how middling it is across the board. The edgier elements never really amount to anything significant and whilst there are some humorous moments, the laughs are never really sustained for any length of time. When Q eventually tracks Margo down and the film is best positioned to say something or do something atypical, it falls infuriatingly short. You see when Q is reunited with Margo, literally nothing happens and it leaves you wondering “what was the point?” There is no grand revelation about why Margo left and Q can’t bring himself to give up the comfort of his middle-class existence for the woman he has pursued halfway across the country. The entire road trip, which takes up a good portion of the film, is ultimately a waste of everyone’s time. What makes it all bearable is Delevingne. Her husky voice is reminiscent of Lauren Bacall who, like Delevingne, started out as a model before being thrust onto the screen alongside Bogart in To Have or to Have Not. With an entrancing screen presence, it is no surprise that Delevingne currently has five other projects in various states of production and she may just emerge as a star of some significance, but she will need better material than this because Paper Towns is exasperating in its failure to be anything more than superficial.