There are nine problems...
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a modern archetype defined by Nathan Rabin in his review of Elizabethtown (2005) as "that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures." The term is a complaint or criticism rather than something beloved. These characters are walking infatuations that belong to the observers and not to the actors themselves. And Paper Towns (2015), an adaptation of the novel by John Green (of The Fault in Our Stars fame), adheres to that definition with ironic precision before crushing that simplicity and then resuscitating it a little so we aren't too much the better for the experience.
Quentin (Nat Wolff) is another modern stereotype: the awkward senior with two friends, going off to a really good school next fall. [Side note: isn't it interesting that in today's rom-com world, the loser character goes to UCF instead of getting a crummy job like he would in the olden days. Everybody goes to college and that ain't good enough.] He's been in crazy, stupid love with Margo (Cara Delevingne) since they were small friends. She abandoned Q when he wimped out of an amateur investigation she was carrying out. He's held a torch ever since and she went on to become the most popular girl in the school. One evening, Margo crawls into Q's bedroom--as she had so many times before those long years ago--and drafts him into her campaign of revenge. "There are nine problems," she says and a trip to the bulk-sale market provides her with the tools to exact that revenge, all stemming from the infidelity of her jock boyfriend--no end of stock characters here. After that, Q is invigorated by the experience and ready for more, but Margo has disappeared, leaving behind clues that may lead to where she's gone. With the help of his two nerdy friends (with a plus-one) and Margo's unfairly persecuted former bestie, Q follows the clues and follows the girl. But what does he find?
[Spoiler Analysis to Follow]
He finds grim reality. Margo, come to find, is kind of a twerp, utterly selfish and self-obsessed. She goes on her little adventure completely unaware that Q would be concerned or inspired to follow. The viewer, expecting a warm denouement, might well spout in shock, "What's this, what's this? No kiss? No happy, tender, 'I'm-the-one-for-you Q, my dearest'?" To which the incredulous Green replies, "No, no. Not here, for here we live in the real world where manic pixie dream girls hurt people--and were probably hurt themselves. Asshole parents and fatuous high school celebrity are unsatisfying mana from which our benignly misunderstood McGuffin has supped too long." Then someone from 20th Century Fox rang up and shouted, "Give him a fucking kiss, at least!" Director Jake Schreier dutifully obliged and undermined the key message of the film.
Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber's script had been building up to the dramatic anti-climax all the while, giving, to the cynical viewer, tasty morsels of doubt all the way through. Margo confesses to a childhood cruelty in which she is entirely guilty, but that passes with an easy forgiveness. The characters around Q acknowledge his fascination with Margo, but aren't necessarily encouraging. Talking to Margo's sexy bestie, Ben (Austin Abrams) says that Margo "doesn't deserve [her friendship]", which stands out conspicuously. Story logic usually holds that, all else being equal, friends deserve one another. The thoughtful expository voiceover signaled that all assumptions were sound. And, while I wouldn't go so far as to call Paper Towns a deconstruction of the romantic coming-of-age story--if only because I think the word "deconstruction" is criminally overused--it will certainly throw a wrench in the industrial fantasy factory against which real people coming of age must psychologically compete.
A few extra observations for you. The plot is kind of scattershot. "What did they do with the catfish?" is a question nagging at me when I see it highlighted in the final credits. That might be my lapse, but Margo definitely says "nine problems" and she gets revenge on four people. On the asset side of the ledger, however, is the great chemistry between Q and his friends Ben and Radar (Justice Smith). They play their parts with genuine familiarity. That may be what saves the film from its triteness--revealed to be knowing, as I said--and makes for a good first viewing.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
Commentary with Schreier and John Green, deleted scenes, alternate scene, The Making of Paper Towns, a gag real, "John and Nat: Lightning Round", "John and Cara: Lighting Round", "Promotional Featurettes: Van Chats", a photo gallery.
"Paper Towns" is on sale October 20, 2015 and is rated PG13. Drama. Directed by Jake Schreier. Written by Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber. Starring Nat Wolff.