Usually I disclaim that I call these Terrible Reviews because I am by no means qualified as a film reviewer, and thus my reviews are likely to be terrible. However, this time, I feel pretty confident in telling you that this film has earned a terrible review.
First of all, this is one of so many novels which was a book first, and the transition from book to film is always fraught with difficulty. You can’t hope to translate the nuances of language from the page to the screen and have that warm, fuzzy feeling carry over with them. And to be fair, I haven’t read John Green’s Paper Towns prior to seeing the film, as I did with The Fault in our Stars. That said, I might have read TFIOS after having viewed the film, but I don’t think I’m going to bother reading Paper Towns at all.
**Also, edited after the fact: For some reason, I ended up having a lot to say about this movie. I don’t know why; maybe it’s because I felt so removed from the narrative that I had time to think about what it was that was removing me from the narrative. Anyway, read on at your peril.**
This is the part where I warn you that there are spoilers ahead. If you’re one of those who cares about such things, you might want to look away, perhaps at the slowly mounting list of things to be done around the house before Thanksgiving.
I’m going to go ahead and acknowledge that I am not the target audience for this film. I’m not a high schooler, and I’m not a romantic, and I’m double definitely not a hopelessly romantic high schooler. I’m thirty and change, jaded and grumpy. So this film is on its face Not For Me.
But here’s a film which features a bland-as-butcher-paper protagonist pining after a quirky-as-pineapples-in-pink-tutus imaginary female love interest with some really frankly hard-to-swallow-even-based-on-a-pretty-substantial-willful-suspension-of-disbelief events driving the story, though to say the story is “driven” is a metaphor I’m going to unpack in a minute. It’s not so much “driven” as it stalls out halfway up the hill and coasts backwards while you try like hell to figure out how to get out without shredding your face or breaking any limbs.
Now, maybe I’m just too old. It hurts my soul to say that, but I fully appreciate the possibility that Paper Towns might be the Breakfast Club of this generation, and I just don’t get it. But I don’t think so. I think the reason The Breakfast Club was so important for my generation (and still is, I humbly think) was because just about anybody watching it could see himself in one of the characters. I don’t feel that happening here. In fact, I don’t know if anybody can particularly see himself in these characters. But enough pining for my own lost childhood. Let’s dive in.
The film’s central message — that nobody really knows who they are, and everybody is doing their best to figure it out — is one that I can get down with. My writings here at the blarg over the past (almost) two years are evidence of my selfsame quest. There’s an existential doubt there that the film communicates well, though I’ll point out that other films do it better (The Breakfast Club, not to beat a dead horse).
Also, there’s a decentish road trip sequence which captures nicely the soul-crushing monotony that a supposed romp across the country actually entails. I don’t know, however, if the filmmakers’ intention was to serve up a boring cross country jaunt. Further, again, so many other films tackle the romanticization of the road trip, and do it so much better.
In seriousness, the protagonist’s sense of doubt is pretty real, I would say, in upper-middle class, white America. He’s on a fast track to college and a career that he feels pretty confidently is the “thing he should be doing,” but his encounter with The Girl is the monkey wrench in the machine. His growing certainty that there’s something more and that maybe he’s been looking at his life in the wrong way is a sentiment that will echo with impending graduates. Again, though, this is not a new idea … again, it’s done (better, I think) in The Breakfast Club.
Then there’s the concept, which is actually pretty fascinating: the “paper town” being a fictional place that exists only on a map. It’s kind of a lovely metaphor for the lead female’s grail-quest to figure out who she really is; the only place she can find herself is in a place that literally doesn’t exist.
Oh, boy. Okay. I just sang the protagonist’s praises so that I could decry him here, because he is as compelling a central character as a slowly melting ice sculpture of a pile of cow dung. He’s not charismatic, but he’s not a wallflower. He’s not dashing, but he’s not better off wearing a paper bag on his head. He’s not a jock, but he’s not a glasses-and-suspenders clad nerd. He’s a scoop of vanilla ice cream, but not even a heaping scoop with the bursting bits of vanilla beans that explode on your tongue; he’s the factory-made processed stuff flavored with chemicals derived from chemicals that were probably used to condition car bumpers or something. It’s hard to root for him or even to care about his struggle, because in the first place, he’s just so very lacking in flavor, but also because the stakes couldn’t be lower. Regardless of how this little love story plays out, he’s gonna be fine.
Then, there’s the girl. She might as well be wearing a big neon sign that says “I am that girl who’s not like the other girls.” She’s “delightfully” quirky and “refreshingly” blunt in her no-nonsense, no B.S., no rules approach to the world. My wife actually put her finger on it: “She’s the Cool Girl that the protagonist laments in Gone Girl.” If you didn’t read / see that one (you should, if only to see Neil Patrick Harris get his throat slashed open in one of the most genuinely fargoed-up things I’ve ever seen on film), Cool Girl an invented construct of male-centric media, a female who genuinely likes “manly” things and eschews “girly” things. She doesn’t play by “girly” rules but she is still quintessentially feminine, working her wiles upon the men in her life unintentionally through her cuteness and coolness, and remaining oblivious to how much these men want and desire her. Okay, maybe I overexplained that one a bit, but this is the character. She laments the entire town she lives in as being “made of paper,” the people and places made of flimsy, immaterial dreams and aspirations.
The problem is that as vanilla as the boy is, the girl is off-the-wall to the same degree. They are light and dark, oil and water, peanut butter and whatever the opposite of jelly is. If he’s too boring to care about, she’s too ludicrously constructed to believe. She traveled with a carnival for three weeks as an eleven year old? She routinely runs away and her parents don’t call the cops? She defaces property, going so far as to leave her name and signature at the crime scenes, and nobody ever presses charges against her? She somehow has connections that allow her to traipse around executive boardrooms in bank buildings? In what effing universe is even a single one of these things possible?
Now, apparently, it has been said that author John Green constructed these two characters to sort of spoof the roles that they, admittedly, take up to eleven. And I can see that… but I don’t see what the end is for all those means. If you’re spoofing the roles, why isn’t the story funnier? (The film has its funny moments, but it’s not a comedy.) If you’re just leaning on the trope, what’s the point? I seriously can’t figure out if the explanation that they are designed to be caricatures holds water, and that’s a problem if you view films critically, as I do.
We just won’t even mention the cardboard cut-outs that make up the rest of the cast. Or the fact that for each of the three “outcast” guys at the core of the film, there’s a perfect dream-girl who thinks he’s dreamy when they get to know each other. Or that there are conveniently six seats in the minivan that they trek across country in. (One seat never gets filled; ooh, symbolism.)
Again, I fear that maybe I’m just too old, but here are a few questions I found myself asking during the film:
- What parents — when called by their high-school child during hour 7 of an at-least-72-hour road trip — simply allow the thing to go off without raising a fuss?
- How does a 17- or 18-year-old girl manage to simply disappear while still apparently having her cell phone? (She explains to the protagonist, as if he were a simpleton, that she speaks to her sister every day.)
- Is she trying to be found or isn’t she? She leaves all these “clues” behind, but the hero tracks her down on some seriously flukey and frankly nonsensical coincidences and good fortune. If you’re trying to be found, you have to do better than hoping that the finder will find an atlas (an ATLAS, of all things, in the age of google) in your ex-boyfriend’s house. If you’re NOT trying to be found, what’s the goldfingered point of leaving behind addresses of your secret hideouts and cryptic messages that point to your secret location?
- Do none of these kids have parents? Seriously, there are five kids on this multi-day road trip, and apparently all of them just went for it and left their parents flapping in the breeze. NOBODY had parents who called the cops?
- How did “the gang” just barely make it back for prom riding directly there in a van, but the hero manages to derp around town for a few hours, find the girl, sit down to a lengthy milkshake and conversation with her, have his heart broken, then take a BUS home and still make it to prom in time to share a dance?
I have a pretty forgiving suspension of disbelief, but this isn’t some tacky, there-are-no-rules farce like a National Lampoon flick. The story seems to want to be taken seriously. Yet there are these tremendous gaps in the story that can’t be filled by any amount of audience-goodwill spackle. It asks too much of its audience. Or maybe I’m too old.
Maybe it’s poking fun at a genre of romantic comedy, coming-of-age stories, but I don’t see what point it’s trying to make, if so. Maybe it’s trying to follow the tropes of those genres only to buck our expectations at the end, but again, it’s not particularly original in doing so, and it’s no payoff when the “surprise” ending comes. It’s kind of like a whoopee cushion that the prankee discovers without sitting on it, then he picks it up and makes the fart noise anyway. It’s just weird.
Then there’s the pacing. My god, the pacing. Snails could outrun the narrative of this thing; in fact, there are sequences in the second half of the film where you see a map of the eastern seaboard with the classic dotted line creeping off the gang’s progress. In the scale, it positively creeps. I remember thinking, yep, that’s about how fast this feels. The central conflict (Cool Girl has disappeared) doesn’t begin until almost the halfway point of the movie; the first half is all taken up with the girl committing felonies (sorry, “pranks”) against a host of people who have wronged her. It’s fun, but my wife and I found ourselves looking at each other to ask, “exactly where is all this going?”
Back to the Redbox first thing in the morning, that’s where.
Okay, so maybe I haven’t been particularly impartial throughout this film, but frankly, I’m disappointed. I’m a big fan of John Green. I’m especially fond of his youtube channels — Mental Floss and the Crash Course series are both educational fun worth checking out — and I dug The Fault in Our Stars even though I didn’t fawn over it like, I feel, much of its audience did. (Again, I’m not the target demographic, but I will maintain that much like with The Notebook, TFIOS illustrates that the line between “stalker” and “persistent love interest” shifts wildly depending on how good-looking the pursuer is.)
In short, this effort feels hollow. Formulaic. As immaterial and fleeting as paper. Perhaps, then, the film is spoofing itself: It takes characters who don’t matter on a love story that isn’t real, toward a romantic payoff that does not exist. A Paper Romance.
Or maybe it’s just a bad movie.
All that said, John Green does have a knack for a nicely turned phrase, so I’m willing to bet the book is a fair bit better than the movie. For me, though, the movie was bad enough to make me seriously skeptical about the strength of the source material.
Sorry, JG. Maybe I’ll give it a try again on your next novel.
To the best of my knowledge, all images are copyright of Fox 2000 pictures, and based on source material by John Green.