Uneven "Paper Towns" Has Wisdom To Spare

“Paper Towns” is the second novel by ten-million-selling author John Green to make it from page to screen, a distinction that would be a boon to just about any other film. Instead, the movie seems destined to play second banana to last year’s critical and commercial darling “The Fault In Our Stars.” But as second bananas go, it’s not a bad one, even if its high notes are infrequent and unsustained.

Nat Wolff (“The Fault In Our Stars”) moves from supporting to leading man here as Quentin, an unassuming high schooler whose love for the girl next door and former childhood friend is seemingly unrequited. Thankfully, Green and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber put an interesting spin to their old chestnut storyline.

The girl, Margo (fashion model Cara Delevingne), is a wind-in-her-face free spirit, frequently inventing missions and adventures for herself that only punctuate her place as mythical dream girl to the young men in her life.

Her disappearances all have two things in common: they’re marked with clues to assure her loved ones of her safety and they’re wholly unpredictable, making one surprise late night visit to Quentin’s bedroom not all that surprising. The adventuress and her new recruit soon set out into the night to secure revenge on her cheating boyfriend, culminating in a bond remade.

But the next day Margo is gone, leaving Quentin to stew in a whirlwind of new, confused memories.

The rest of “Paper Towns” plays out as a scavenger hunt with Quentin and his two best friends Ben (Austin Adams) and Radar (Justice Smith) bouncing back and forth between school and Margo’s trail of clues.

It’s understood from the top that the pic’s unlikely premise calls for a certain amount of disbelief, but it pushes it early and often with its depiction of teens as master detectives. Moreover, Margo’s home life is mostly left untouched, leaving us to wonder if the girl of Quentin’s dreams is more troubled runaway than starry-eyed dreamer.

The movie’s biggest liability is its modest 110-minute running time. Once our leads set out on a road trip to find their mark, the picture slows to a crawl, peppering us with some reasonably entertaining bits that add nothing to the story at large. A cameo by “The Fault In Our Stars” star Ansel Elgort is especially egregious, audience pandering in its lowest form.

There’s a shorter cut of “Paper Towns” out there somewhere, delivering its smart, refreshing conclusion in a much tidier package, but this version isn’t a total waste. The cast is uniformly good – Briton Delevingne struggles with her American accent but is otherwise enchanting – and the soundtrack is memorable, wielding tracks by alt-pop savants Son Lux and Twin Shadow to dazzling effect.

However bumpy the journey in “Paper Towns” is, the destination is mostly worth it. But take a cue from its lead character – don’t get your hopes up.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: July 24, 2015
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Jake Schreier
Screenwriter: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber
Starring: Nat Wolff, Cara Delevingne, Justice Smith, Austin Abrams, Halston Sage
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some language, drinking, sexuality and partial nudity – all involving teens)