Nat Wolff, the wry best friend in last year’s “The Fault in Our Stars,” has graduated to leading man in the current project taken from a novel by John Green: “Paper Towns,” where he plays a graduating high school senior who sets off to find a girl with whom he’s been infatuated for a decade.
The title refers to an old trick of inventing a locale that exists in name only, so mapmakers would know if someone duplicated their work and infringed on copyright. Green and the men who adapted his book into a screenplay, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, use it as a symbol for places that seem to be full of activity but remain hollow and unfulfilling. By that standard, this is a paper movie.
It takes place in a world that has no consequences for the foolish and selfish things children do, where they can “borrow” a parent’s car and credit card for a 2,400-mile round trip and dance happily on prom night three days later. It asks us to be enraptured by Margo (Cara Delevingne), the mysterious madcap who has fascinated neighbor Quentin (Woolf) since elementary school, though we can see within five minutes that she’s mean-spirited, self-centered and shallow. And the clichéd “high school is hell, but we’re sure gonna miss it” vibe has seldom seemed so phony.
The movie revolves around Margo, though she’s not in much of it. A mystique has grown up at an Orlando high school: Athletes want to date her, beauty queens want to be her best friend, ordinary guys look at her like Bottom watching Titania trip through the forest in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” But anyone with the perspicacity of a newt would see through her at once, so the film begins with a lie. (It doesn’t help that Delevingne plays Margo as cold, smug and pouty.)
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When she runs away for the fifth time, Quentin decides to follow a trail of obscure clues – which she has apparently left for him – that he thinks will lead to mythical Agloe, N.Y., a spot created as a paper town on road maps of the 1930s.
Naturally, he’s accompanied by two buddies, needy Ben (Austin Abrams) and calm Radar (Justice Smith). Unnaturally, Margo’s former best friend, Lacey (Halston Sage) comes too, though Margo has just coated her car in Saran Wrap and left a note saying their relationship is over. Radar’s girlfriend (Jaz Sinclair) ends up in the car, too.
A compelling story could have been told about these three awkward boys: their needling affection for each other, their shyness toward girls, their unwillingness to acknowledge that they actually do like learning (Quentin is an A student) and will be sad to depart a safe place where they’ve done a lot of it.
But once The Quest begins, the movie collapses. The ending turns coincidental, preachy and stupid, as Quentin proves he hasn’t learned anything from his journey. It’s as if someone set out to find the Holy Grail, discovered it was a Dixie Cup and worshipped it anyway.
P.S. Parts of the film were shot in North Carolina. Central Cabarrus High School in Concord stands in for the Orlando school, and Charlotte actress Meg Crosbie has a supporting role as Margo’s mercenary younger sister.
STARS: Nat Wolff, Cara Delevingne, Austin Abrams, Justice Smith, Halston Sage.
DIRECTOR: Jake Schreier.
RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes.
RATING: PG-13 (some language, drinking, sexuality and partial nudity, all involving teens).