** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Jake Schreier
STARS Nat Wolff, Cara Delevingne
Cara Delevingne and Nat Wolff in Paper Towns (Photo: Fox)
With characters who are often as intricate and three-dimensional as an origami figure but a script that remains hopelessly paper-thin, Paper Towns is a disappointment coming on the heels of last summer's lovely weepie, The Fault in Our Stars.
The comparison is apt, as both films were based on novels by John Green. What's more, Nat Wolff, who played Ansel Elgort's best friend Isaac in Fault, has now graduated to leading-man status (and seemingly grew a foot-and-a-half in the interim) for this new picture. He stars as Quentin, a typical high school kid who has spent his young life pining for next-door neighbor Margo (Cara Delevingne). While he has passed the years hanging out with his best friends, the sensible Radar (Justice Smith) and the obnoxious Ben (Austin Abrams, channeling Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles), Margo has gained twin reputations as a maverick and a mystery, surrounded by friends but perpetually striking out on her own to do something unexpected and often even rash.
One such incident occurs during the kids' senior year, as she ropes the smitten Quentin into helping her exact her revenge against former friends who did her wrong. After this wild night, she disappears — something she's done many times before, according to her fed-up parents, who want nothing more to do with her now that she's 18 and no longer their responsibility even though she's still a high school student. Since Margo is fond of leaving clues whenever she does something unpredictable, Quentin takes it upon himself to find these clues, convinced that she has left them specifically so he might find her and they can be reunited.
Quentin's sleuthing eventually results in a road trip from Florida to New York, but Paper Towns loses its way long before this point. The strength of the picture rests in the performances from its bright young players and the characters they inhabit, brought to loving life by Green and scripters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (the team behind adapting Fault as well). The scenes between the three boys are the best: They're funny and true to life, whether it's Ben trying to convince Quentin and Radar that he's not lying about once having a girlfriend to Radar and Ben attempting to talk Quentin into crashing a party with them. The material involving Margo isn't nearly as strong, from the ridiculous "mystery" that wouldn't even pass muster in a Three Investigators book to Margo herself, who never comes into her own as a character but instead feels like a fictional construct a couple of steps removed from the so-called manic pixie dream girl.
Delevingne, best known as a top model, is fine as Margo, even if she's perhaps a bit too aloof to believably inspire such passion in Quentin. This fault in the star comes even more into focus with the introduction of her best friend Lacey (Halston Sage), who's warm and intelligent and relatable. Lacey and Quentin would make a lovely couple, but in this picture, which is perpetually trying to cram happy square pegs into sad round holes, no geek can get left behind, so Lacey is unceremoniously tossed to Ben. Because every pretty high school senior is just dying to spend time with a spaz who both pukes in vases and pisses in soda cans in front of her, wouldn't you know.