Paper Towns tears down long-disavowed trope

Another reason the film succeeds is it’s easy to get the obsession. Delevingne lights up the screen as a mysterious, throaty teenage dream. Photos courtesy 20th Century Fox.

Like last week’s Trainwreck, Paper Towns isn’t any kind of genre trailblazer, but it’s charming enough to make up for all the things you’ve seen before. It even throws in some things you may not have.

The movie is narrated by Q Jacobsen (Nat Wolff), who, in elementary school, witnessed the miracle of Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne) move in across the street. They share adventures early, but Spiegelman moves on quickly because of Jacobsen’s aversion to taking risks. Now, in their senior year of high school, she suddenly reappears at his window, needing his help in her revenge plot against a cheating boyfriend. The next day, she vanishes, and Jacobsen becomes determined to find her.

Paper Towns will satisfy viewers with short attention spans because of this narrative shift. It’s really two movies in one — a traditional love story and a coming-of-age bromance road movie. It accomplishes this odd four-act structure deftly, without shifting tone at all. This narrative, as well as the first-person perspective, allows the movie to explore its subject — deconstructing the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope — in newer, greater detail than before.

Paper Towns is all about this trope, and it does a great job of bringing it to fantastic, believable life while also gently poking holes in the concept. The whole thing is from Jacobsen’s perspective, and that allows the movie to play with this pumped-up, imaginary version of Spiegelman that he’s looking for. The girl spends more time being imagined, watched from a distance or thought about offscreen than she does actually interacting with Jacobsen. The movie strikes a wonderful balance between delivering its fantasy and not letting viewers actually fall into the kind of romanticism Jacobsen has. The real magic of this movie is being immersed in this point of view and being convinced that this fantastic, transcendent human might really exist, but only for an hour or so.

It’s a good deconstruction, but the need to stomp out a trope that’s been out of favor for a few years now is questionable. The last high-profile example was probably Her, and the last high-profile example that wasn’t subverted somehow was… well, basically Zooey Deschanel’s entire career, but she’s been stuck hamming it up on TV since 2011. Her turn in (500) Days of Summer was the last time this trope was really accepted. The book Paper Towns is based on came out in 2008, a year before that movie and well before everyone started getting tired of the cliche, but seven short years later, it doesn’t play as well as it might if movies hadn’t already gone in that direction.

This movie has target audience problems. The hope was that the same young female crowd that came out for author John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars last year, adapted by the same writers (Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber), would come out for Paper Towns, but the book was no where near as popular and four years older. Also, a pretty important rule of thumb is you want your main character to be in your target demographic. Fault in Our Stars was narrated by a young woman, but Paper Towns is not, so expecting young women to come out to it isn’t as realistic. This translated into an extremely disappointing $12 million opening weekend.

Maybe the thought was that young girls could sympathize with and idolize Spiegelman, but that’s a bit of a crazy thought when you realize the entire message of the story is, “Don’t.”

Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. The earth has music for those who listen. I’ve had a change of heart about reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@gmail.com.

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