Paper Towns is too nice.
And that is, coincidentally, also the problem its hero has been facing. Quentin Jacobsen (Nat Wolff) is a rule-abiding straight-A student so worried about coloring outside the lines that his own teacher rolls his eyes when he brings up a missed quiz, assuring the kid that he'll still be able to become a doctor without it. Q, as his friends call him, is well-behaved to the point of timidity, and he's constantly reminded of his own meekness by the presence of his next-door neighbor, Margo Roth Spiegelman, who's like Ferris Bueller in the body of model and actress Cara Delevingne.
Or at least that's how he sees her. Paper Towns, the second movie adaptation of a John Green novel, circles around a excellent point: It's neither fair nor healthy to idealize someone as the solution to your own problems. It is, in theory, about the shittiness of turning someone into your manic pixie dream girl, except in practice, it never quite makes it there.
Q has been manic-pixie-dream-girling the hell out of Margo from afar since they were kids, seeing in her the freedom and adventurousness he lacks. She is, in his own voiceovered words, his "miracle," his portion of the dose of magic that he believes everyone is due in their lives. Maybe they haven't spoken for nine years, but he's pined for her from across the street as she's established herself at the top of their high school food chain, a larger-than-life figure who, rumor has it, once ran off and joined a circus and who toured for weeks with a band. When she dips back into his life for a night, then runs away again, he becomes convinced that she wants him to join her.
There's no way to get into this without spoilers, so — spoilers: Margo does not want him to join her. She actually hasn't been giving him much thought at all. She's a teenager with problems of her own, prone to using people and possessed with a flair for drama. But the way that Q is forced to come to terms with this unromantic truth is so sadly soft-pedaled onscreen that it feels more like an apology than a realization.
Part of the problem with Paper Towns, which was directed by Jake Schreier (Robot & Frank) and adapted by The Fault In Our Stars screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, is Delevingne, who's not yet strong enough an actor to convincingly portray the moment she snaps from dream to real-live girl in Q's view — she's never more than an abstract. Where Margo has ended up raises so many questions that go unanswered about where and how she's living, and that adds to the sense of unreality that lingers around the character.
But the bigger issue is that Paper Towns feels afraid to put Q through any pain. Its dramas are incredibly mild, certainly compared to the terminal illness tragedies of The Fault In Our Stars, but also on the standard teen movie scale. Q and his friends Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith) are such good kids that they can take off for an impromptu multi-state road trip with no apparent parental complaints.
Green's writing of teenage characters, at their best and their more melodramatic (like the speech in which we first hear the term in the title), remains painfully believable, but in this movie incarnation, the stakes of the story seem incredibly low. It's hard not to feel that the lesson Q's learned is more "live a little," rather than "girls are people too." Margo may not be the outsize character of his dreams, but she's still just there to help a guy out.