A teen romance with most of the rough edges rubbed off, “Paper Towns” is as pleasantly bland as the city that is its setting — Orlando.
That’s where Quentin (Nat Wolff of “Stuck in Love”) has pined away for neighboring teen Margo Roth Spiegelman. Margo is outgoing, curious, a risk-taker, even as a tween — trying to figure out why a neighbor killed himself in a park in their subdivision.
Quentin has always worried about getting in trouble, “the future,” which he sees oncology, thanks to a degree from Duke. That’s where he’s headed after graduation.
Margo? She drifted away, plainly just bored with a boy who never takes chances.
Quentin narrates our story — almost incessantly. And when we first hear him, Margo’s disappeared.
“She loved mysteries so much that she became one.”
But this isn’t a milk carton teen story, not THAT kind of mystery. Margo likes leaving clues. Maybe Quentin can find her.
He reconstructs that one magical night they had together, when Margo — who manipulates and uses him without a second thought — dragged him out of his room, into his mom’s mini van and into a night of revenge and pranks.
“We bring the rain down on our enemies,” she declares. Any time Quentin tries to back off, it’s “We bring the rain, NOT the scattered showers!”
They hit the all-night discount store and stock up on Nair, Saran Wrap and Vaseline. She’s avenging herself on her cheating boyfriend, his pal and her best friend — who never told her her beau was a cheat.
Q and Margo Roth Spiegelman — often referred to by her full name, to underline the sexual and musical free spirit “Jewish wild woman” cliche novelist John Green wrote her to be — have a moment that night, barely.
And then she was gone.
It’s up to Q and his “Sixteen Candles” sidekicks Radar (Justice Smith) and Ben (Austin Abrams) to find clues, solve the mystery and track her to whatever Paper Town she’s run for.
John Green, the vlogger and TV writer-turned teen novelist, has done a nice job staking out the bittersweet romance corner of that universe, from a love affair with a dying girl (“The Fault in Our Stars”) to the love that never quite was (“Paper Towns”).
The story takes us to a teen party and an oddly unworrying road trip as Lacey, Margo’s dumped BFF (Halston
Sage, is that a real name?) joins the boys and Radar’s first girlfriend (Jaz Sinclair) on a quest to find the missing manipulator.
Cara Delevingne plays Margo as all eyebrows and bare midriff, an approachable teen dream and not some unattainable prom queen. There’s just enough charisma here to suggest the allure.
Wolff rarely gives his characters any edge, and that makes Q a bit more boring than he’s written. But of course Mom would let him skip off on a road trip in her car without asking. Guys this dull never do anything irresponsible.
Director Jake Schreirer did the briefly over-rated Old Man and his robotic helper dramedy “Robot & Frank,” and he hits most of the mileposts in this checklist teen romance. There’s just enough teen sex, swearing and drinking (as there was in “Fault in Their Stars”) to make this catnip to the 15 year-olds in the target audience.
Viewers who have been around the multiplex a little longer won’t mind it, even if we are checking our watches, wondering if this is ever going to grow a villain, or grow the guts to make the manipulative Margo into one.
Cast: Nat Wolff, Cara Delevingne, Austin Abrams, Justice Smith, Halston Sage
Credits: Directed by Jake Schreier, script by Scott Neustadter based on the John Green novel. A Fox 2000 release.
Running time: 1:49