Friday, September 18, 2015

Paper Towns

thE mYth oF marGo RotH sPiEgelMan
"She's Still a Mystery to Me"

Quentin (Nat Wolff) is obsessed.  From the moment that Margo and her family moved into his neighborhood he has been crazy about Margo (Cara Delevingne) and her love of mysteries.  They become fast friends at the age of 5, but as they get older, she matures a little quicker and they slowly become more acquaintances than friends. But Quentin is still obsessed, watching from the side-lines as Margo outpaces him in interests, popularity and lifestyle.  She simply outgrows him.

Then, in high school, things break.  While most of the kids are getting excited about prom, Margo shows up at Quentin's upstairs bedroom window and tells him he has to help her in an adventure. They go to a warehouse store and supply up for a night of what Margo calls "revenge."  She goes to the houses of various of her friends—ex-friends now as she feels betrayed by them—and hurts them where they live, literally, employing various "shaming" rituals which will need to be explained at school—the most outlandish of which is going to her best friend's house, where Margo's boyfriend is sleeping over, and calling the girl's parents to inform them that their daughter is being soiled in her room. The errant boyfriend exits a window, clothes being carried in a pile as he runs buck-naked into the night where he is summarily snapped for posterity with a smart phone. Owned.
Quentin is thrilled (despite subsequently being roughed up by the sosh's the next day at school)—Margo is paying ATTENTION to him, his street-cred has gone up a notch, and he's being noticed at school rather than blending in with the lockers (or being shoved into them). He's one of those undefined ur-boys before they can be recognized as men, doughy and devoid of sharp angles, and he has a lame-ass lope to his mouth that always seems to be smiling even if he's being told that his dog died.* He has two equally fringe friends: the perpetually horny Ben (Austin Abrams), who is a serial up-talker with delusions of studhood; and Radar (Justice Smith), who's managed to pull off the dual demands of being studious AND having a girlfriend (Jaz Sinclair), which he sustains by never letting her near his friends (obviously) or his parents (rumored to have the largest collection of black Santa's in the world). Either could kill the illusion of magic.
Radar, Quentin and Ben (who, by his expression, has just fallen in love again)
Quentin, though, is still over the Moon. The excitement of the previous night's adventure has him dog-tired at school, but still puppy-dog thrilled. "You should live your life like this," Margo had told him. Instead of thinking about the wisdom of taking advice from a 17 year old who has no problems with breaking-and-entering or with revenge scenarios. He instead begins planning what the invitations will say for his and Margo's wedding. He can't wait to see her again.
But, he doesn't.  Nor does she show up at school the next day. Or the third. On that day, her parents file yet another in a series of "missing persons" reports (this is the fourth time she's run away—one time she'd left for three months to be a groupie with a rock band) and Quentin turns his obsession to finding Margo. He asks friends—the ones that don't want to punch him out—her parents, her sister. Nobody knows where's Margo. Particularly worried is Margo's best friend Lacey (Halston Sage)—whose car Margo saran-wrapped that night for thinking she knew about her boyfriend's cheating. After days pass by, Quentin looks across at Margo's window. The blind is down (Margo never left the blind down) and tucked in it is a photograph of Woody Guthrie.
Margo has left clues, and with the help of Ben, Radar, Radar's girl Angela, and Lacey, they start tracking the breadcrumbs and do everything but buy a dog named "Scooby-Doo." Those meddling kids...
It is to John Green's credit that when he wrote his third YAL book (after "Looking for Alaska" and "An Abundance of Katherines") he chose to stray into another genre (other than the standard "romance,") and into that of the mystery (it was even nominated for an "Edgar Award"). That seems right. Kids see life as a mystery—it's all new and new stuff keeps showing up around every corner. And they don't know what they don't know—that's at the very heart of mystery. Try to stuff a teen movie into another genre like "noir" (and I'm thinking of Brick here) the results are as believable as Bugsy Malone being a credible gangster movie.  It's style versus reality, and more stylized than actually evoking any real style. Paper Towns eludes that—they're trying to solve a mystery close to their hearts, as opposed to finding out "What Happened at Midnight" or "Hunting For Hidden Gold." Life's throwing up another question mark and it's from one of their own.
So, they follow the clues, culminating in a road-trip that absolutely, positively has to be finished by prom-night ("Life," after all, must go on) and the kids want to solve the mystery, but it's Quentin who wants to know the motive. He has to know "why." And like any "good" detective, he won't like the answer much.
Neither will some of Green's devoted readers. Paper Towns is adapted by two very good screenwriters, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Webber, who wrote (500) Days of Summer and adapted The Spectacular Now and Green's The Fault in Our Stars (they also wrote Steve Martin's second "Pink Panther" movie, but we'll pass over that one). In Green's novel, the "ultimate reveal" is a bit harsher, and more of a "tough love" exercise, but in the movie, things are a bit more "feel-good." The situation ends on the same note, but how it gets there, especially in the Quentin-Margo dynamic of obsessor/obsessed and Margo's ultimate sense of self are quite different. In the movie, Margo seems to know what she's doing, but in Green's original, she's as much on a quest as Quentin—she just doesn't know what it is, nor does she care. Quentin gets some of that by his brief association with Margo and starts to generate the understanding that it is the journey, not the goal that is of the most importance. The latter is so High School. The former is a lot like life. Too bad you have to graduate to get there.
A good movie, with more food for thought in the depths than there might be on the surface, which is entirely appropriate.
"What a treacherous thing it is to think that a person is more than a person"

* He's also just a little gifted as an actor—he provided a lot of connective spackle as the "friend with eye cancer" in The Fault in Our Stars (whose male lead has a quick cameo in Paper Towns).

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