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A Good Moral Can’t Justify Paper Towns‘ Aimlessness

The Classic Enigmatic Pixie Dreamgirl


[Mild spoilers to follow in the blocked-out text.]

A little thing about me before I start this review. My favorite movie of all time is a little movie called The Paper Chase. I love this ’70s movie and have seen it well over 20 times. And, my favorite line in the movie, spoke by the Bionic Woman herself Lindsay Wagner (really love her) is:

They sucked all that Midwestern charm right out of you. Look, he’s got you scared to death. You’re going to pass, because you’re the kind the law school wants. You’ll get your little diploma. Your piece of paper that’s no different than this (toilet paper) and you can stick it in your silver box with all the other paper in your life. Your birth certificate, driver’s license, marriage license, your stock certificates, and your will.

That is a great mini-monologue and Wagner delivers it beautifully (watch the trailer sometime).

The reason I mention that line is because I should say, I was very conflicted going into Paper Towns. The trailer kind of made me cringe when I heard a high school character say lines like “All the paper kids drinking beer some bum bought for them at the paper convenience store. Everyone demented with the mania of owning things. All the things paper-thin and paper-frail. And all the people, too. I’ve lived here for eighteen years and I have never once in my life come across anyone who cares about anything that matters.” First, I thought, that is some clunky dialogue and the delivery was really bad. Second I thought, that was a terrible rip off from my favorite movie (I might be projecting…I don’t know many people who remember The Paper Chase). And third, that does not sound like something a high schooler would ever say.

And I was right. Most of the dialogue in this movie does not sound “age appropriate” and feeds John Green’s tendency to write aspirational stories. It usually sounds like something I would have heard from college students who like talking philosophy. But the characters (especially Cara Delevingne’s Margo) are so apathetic when they give these speeches in this film, making the lines feel even less natural than they otherwise would. The story of Paper Towns is about Margo, the “dream girl” of Quentin, who is also her neighbor. She goes on a revenge night destroying things of her friends and boyfriend who cheated on her. Then she disappears and Quentin (Nat Wolff) has to find her by following the MOST DIFFICULT TO FIND CLUES IN THE WORLD! Seriously, Columbo would have had trouble with these clues. Then he goes on a road trip with his friends to find her.

This is very much a “teen” movie, as with The Fault in Our Stars. But John Green did himself no favors writing a book called Paper Towns that has been made into a movie, because the plot and characters are paper thin. Any personality from these characters come from the shallowest of descriptions and whatever the actors can infuse from themselves. Nat Wolff can be a charismatic actor (he’s actually very good in Admission), but this isn’t a great role for him and he is required to narrate a lot to retain the book’s language, which hurts his character development. His two friends, played by Justice Smith and Austin Abrams provide the majority of authentic teen interactions, although Abrams plays one of the most annoying teen characters I’ve seen recently. Jaz Sinclair (as Smith’s girlfriend) also has some nice, authentic moments.

But Delevingne, although lovely, is rather dull as the quintessential dreamgirl. Because she’s required to be a vessel for Quentin’s desires, she doesn’t have much to play or opportunity to come across like an actual person. What she does show in her limited screen time however is brattier more than it is quirky. Surprisingly, the projection Quentin does onto Margo provides the film with a good moral about men objectifying women…but we only get that moralizing in the last few moments, and because Margo left such a minor impression on me, I didn’t care about the other characters’ journey to find her.

I have no doubt that, as a friend of mine said, “the book is better” and what is written on the page just doesn’t translate on screen. Okay…then don’t do such a direct adaption just to pander to your audiences who read the book. The film needs to stand on its own, and if it doesn’t, it is the director (Jake Schreier) and writers (Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber) who need to make it work. I should say, I don’t like the screenplays by Neustadter and Weber, which include 500 Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now (and Fault in our Stars) because of a hint of sexism their films have in turning their female characters objects and goals to motivate the male characters to evolve…and I don’t like this screenplay either, although I appreciate the apparent growth they have had in acknowledging this in themselves.


Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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