Paper Chase

Paper Towns (Jake Schreier, 2015)

I’m pretty sure there are a couple of moments in Philip K. Dick novels – Time Out of Joint? Voices from the Street? – when a character looks at their world and thinks it’s all paper. Or at the very least a stage set. That idea is here in a speech given to Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne) in this YA film, looking over Orlando from the top of a skyscraper. She also appears to be a bit of a Dickian anima sprite, there to bring some excitement to the middle-aged protagonist.

Except that the protagonist is here a teen, Quentin or Q (Nat Wolff), best friends forever with fellow geeks or nerds Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith), all of whom are prematurely middle-aged. Well, apart from Ben, who is turned on by any woman he knows, including Q’s mother.

Maybe that is also middle aged.

Q and Margo are neighbours, once inseparable, but grown apart through high school, until one night she calls upon him to help her commit nine acts of revenge. I didn’t quite count nine, so perhaps there’s stuff we didn’t see, but it brings Q alive at last. But then Margo vanishes – leaving Q clues to find her with. He has a choice – go to the prom, graduate, go to university, graduate, becomes a doctor, get married, have kids and be happy or find Margo. You can imagine the choice he makes.

I’ve got a copy of The Fault in Our Stars (2012), which has also been filmed and is also written by John Green, but I’ve yet to read it. I should remedy this. This is one of those films that is cleverly structured to undermine your objections to it. Isn’t she a little too idolised? Check. Isn’t it a little too convenient? Check. If he gets the girl, then it’s a rather trivial film with the female as impossible yet winnable love object, with the emphasis on object. If she rejects him, is that any better? And I guess since Galaxy Quest, nerds winning has been a thing – and you could imagine Justin Long of that film and several dozen TV classics in two of the central roles. Actually, its pedigree probably includes The Sure Thing.

Radar’s character occasionally risks stealing the movie with his parents’ collection of Black Santas (an attempt to get into The Guinness Book of World Records) and the moment when he is given a heritage-not-hate t-shirt (a detail that presumably became ultra-satirical since the movie was made).

What makes me resist the film a little, however, is the first person narration. Yes, there are a couple of scenes that Q isn’t in so I quibble a bit at that, but mainly I’ve a sense of being told not shown. In a film such as Stand By Me (Rob Reiner, 1986), there is a distinct age difference between the narrating self and the narrated self – which can bring pathos or irony or nostalgia according to taste – but here I felt I was being instructed. The director or script writer didn’t trust us and that’s a shame.

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