When you get to a movie theatre and realize that you’re vastly outnumbered by teenage girls you’re hardly expecting a spiritual prequel to Fight Club. But Tyler Durden lived on Paper Street and early on in Paper Towns we’re transported to that unforgettable ending in Fight Club, where a fearless girl holds hands with a nerdish man-child, trying to save him from his conformist lifestyle. The only difference is that Marla Singer has already accomplished that, and more, while Paper Towns Margo is just beginning to transform her childhood friend Q from the conformist careerist he might otherwise turn into. Oh, and soulless corporate muzak (referenced as such in the movie) has replaced the Pixies and instead of beautiful explosions we’ll get Margo’s nihilistic musings. But the seeds of the earlier movie are there.
Having said that it should be noted that this is obviously a very different film from Fight Club – simply because both Margo and Quentin will have a lot of growing up to do before they can become quite as nihilistically disillusioned as Marla and the unnamed narrator of Fight Club. These are still just innocent kids – even if at least Margo is certainly wise beyond her years. In fact, that’s the fun thing about it all – mentally creating those links – how those innocent kids will end up as militant anti-corporate rebels.
But hey, I also shouldn’t get your hopes up too high – Paper Towns is nowhere near being the masterpiece Fight Club is – but it’s a perfectly charming little teen flick in its own right. The first half an hour or so is the Margo and Quentin show – and far more intense than anything that comes after it. We see their back-story (Margo is the girl next door who used to be a friend until adolescence hit) before Margo surprisingly enters his life anew through his bedroom window, offering him to be the getaway driver on her revenge mission.
Q had already been carrying a torch for Margo – but after this night this turns into a full blown obsession – only for him to find out Margo has disappeared, leaving behind a few breadcrumbs for him to follow. Now, none of the other characters have half the manic energy Margo does – so at first the movie suffers a little. But then, little by little, the magic happens. Quentin decides to go find Margo – and four of his friends go along for the ride. And the magic is simply watching those kids interact. Their banter is totally believable as they riff off each other – this feels like real friends, saying a real goodbye to a childhood coming to an end. They are goofy, awkward and silly – but in small, insignificant moments they manage to transport you to your own adolescence. It’s simply fun taking a road trip with them.
And since you asked, yes, it’s considerably better than that other, more famous, John Green adaptation, The Fault in Our Stars. For the simple reason that without the cancer we also get rid of the sentimentality that often stifled that film. Having said that the screenwriting duo of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber seem to be writing some of the most interesting teen flicks going. I say that despite finding their best known work, the aforementioned The Fault in Our Stars and (500) Days of Summer, overrated – but Paper Towns and the under-seen gem The Spectacular Now (where you can see Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller at their very best, just before they made it big) more than make up for that.
Ásgeir H Igólfsson
P.S.: A film like Fight Club obviously has many spiritual prequels – but this here is probably my favorite.