Coming out of Paper Towns and saying, “Well, I’ve certainly sat through worse,” while someone else admits that it’s at least better than The Fault in Our Stars, is a long way from unstinting praise. Can I do any better? Yes, but with qualifications — qualifications that keep me from fully recommending it. There are good things in this combined coming-of-age and road trip story, but there’s a hollowness to it — not to mention a pretty unsatisfying ending — that keeps it from ringing the gong, despite a lot of those things we’re told the road to hell is paved with. However, the intentions here don’t so much lead to hell as they lead to vague dissatisfaction.
The central premise of Paper Towns (the title refers to fake towns put on maps by cartographers to spot plagiarism) is good. It’s at once familiar — boy whose been stuck on a girl since early childhood gets what appears to be a chance with her — and unusual — girl disappears, but leaves a trail of clues to find her. So far, so good. The boy is Quentin (a solid turn by Nat Wolff), who long ago lost his chance with Margo (a less solid performance from Cara Delevingne) by not being adventurous enough for her, which here means not being enough of a rule-breaker. His shot at redemption comes when Margo finds out that her boyfriend has been cheating on her and she enlists Quentin (or Q as he’s generally called) to help in her revenge scheme. Turns out that Q likes the rush he experiences, but more than that he likes having spent time with Margo — climaxing in a giddy late night romantic dance in the Sun Trust building — and is looking forward to seeing her again on this new footing. Unfortunately, by morning Margo has disappeared.
As it turns out, Margo has a history of disappearing — so much so that her parents (especially her mother) are unimpressed with this latest vanishing act. It also turns out that Margo always leaves a trail of clues to her whereabouts, which causes Q and his friends to start looking to see if she has left any — and they find them. And Q deduces that she has left them so he can find her, prompting the road trip to find her. This makes up most of the film and is where the movie starts becoming a mixed, but not disastrously so, bag. Parts of the road trip are quite good — and the dawning realization about Margo’s personality is even excellent. The problem is that it’s also entirely too pat and too easy. Everything — including the fizzled-out ending — feels conveniently scripted, and not entirely convincing.
The truly unfortunate thing about the movie’s shortcomings is that the Q’s friends — and a couple of interested parties — are so well fleshed-out. Oh, sure, they’re pretty much a standard collection of types, but they’re given some interesting quirks that afford the illusion of reality. They’re also nicely acted by young performers, and while there’s nothing remarkable about Jake Schreier’s direction, he gets the most out of this cast. Well, most of the cast. Carla Delevingne has a definite presence, but she’s at best a competent actress. It doesn’t hurt the film much since she’s offscreen a good deal of the time, and Margo is less a character than she’s other people’s idea of one. Overall, there’s enough that’s good about Paper Towns that it’s not without merit — just maybe not quite enough. Rated PG-13 for some language, drinking, sexuality and partial nudity — all involving teens.