When film writer Nathan Rabin coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” — a character who “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” — in the inaugural entry of his “My Year of Flops” feature, he had no idea what he was starting. Over the next several years, the term was applied, misapplied, exploded, and ultimately retracted by its creator, who apologized to pop culture “for creating this unstoppable monster.”
Its formulation and discussion was a net good regardless; the MPDG raised awareness of this simplistic approach to the writing of women in films, and the odious trope went, to a great extent, the way of the dinosaur. But it’s still popping up in YA fiction and film adaptations of said books — and that brings us to Paper Towns, which may well be the MPDG’s nadir.
The story, first told in John Green’s book of the same name, concerns Quentin (Nat Wolff), a nerdy kid from the Orlando suburbs who falls “hopelessly, madly in love” with Margo (Cara Delevigne), the girl next door, when they’re little kids. At that age, Margo develops a taste for mysteries. “Maybe Margo loved them so much,” Quentin muses in voiceover, “she became one.” They’re close as kids, but then they drift apart, and she becomes a high-school legend, not only gorgeous and popular but (here we go) wacky and unpredictable, prone to disappearing for long stretches and accumulating legends.
All of this is set up before Margo, out of nowhere, knocks on Quentin’s window in the middle of the night and implores him to swipe his mom’s car and serve as her accomplice in a nightlong righting of wrongs. “Basically, this is gonna be the best night of your life,” she promises, before they head to BJ’s Wholesale Club to buy such zaaaaaaany items as Saran Wrap, Nair, and a catfish, and off they go. She’s a force of nature, you see!?! (This section is pitched and paced like an ‘80s “one crazy night with your dream girl” comedy, something along the lines of License to Drive or Mystery Date or Blind Date or the first hour of Something Wild, but without anyone doing or saying anything particularly funny.)
Margo’s nutty shenanigans must, of course, give way to her serious side, which reveals itself at the evening’s conclusion, in the cringe-worthy introspective speech that explains the title. (She later calls their hometown “a paper town for a paper girl,” and if you can make it through that line without retching, you’ve got a stronger stomach than I do.) And then, poof, she’s gone; she disappears from school and from her home, sending Quentin on a goofy scavenger hunt, piecing together the clues she’s left about where she went, and why.
Perhaps the most telling thing about Paper Towns is how much better the film plays once Margo’s gone — because not only Quentin but also the author, screenwriters, and director (all men, BTW) see her so much more clearly as an idea than as a person. She is, per the trope, less a dynamic, three-dimensional character or even a compelling partner than she is a totem, the embodiment of a free spirit that dull ol’ Quentin can never understand as long as he stays locked in on his good student/boring job/average life plan. The film can barely feign curiosity about what motivates Margo (beyond inspiring Quentin), and when she does reappear, it’s to mouth groan-worthy fortune cookie wisdom like, “You have to get lost before you find yourself.” And even when the filmmakers grant her a teaspoon of independence in what seems to be a refreshingly realistic conclusion, they pull a head-scratching 180 by giving her a final exchange with Quentin that explodes everything she’s just said. But it’s necessary — ultimately, you see, he must be the one to choose their outcome.
There’s plenty more to hate about Paper Towns: the way it lurches and drags through its interminable 109 minutes; the predictable pee jokes and animal encounters of its pro forma road-trip section; the infuriating casting of Cara Buono as the mother of an 18-year-old, in the midst of the summer of Greer, another reminder that studio filmmakers have no idea what to do with sparkling, interesting actresses once they approach 40. (It’s cool, though, there’s a lot of jokes about how badly Quentin’s horny buddy wants to bang her.)
But it’s the relentless, blithely tone-deaf deployment of this tired convention that grates the most. Of the source novel, Green insists, “Paper Towns is devoted IN ITS ENTIRETY to destroying the lie of the manic pixie dream girl” and claims, “I do not know how I could have been less ambiguous about this without calling the novel The Patriarchal Lie of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Must Be Stabbed in the Heart and Killed.” Maybe that intention was lost in translation; maybe, like in The Perks of Being a Wallflower or Green’s gender-swapped MPDG story The Fault in Our Stars or even, God help us, manicpixiedreamgirl, YA authors (and the filmmakers who adapt them) think that self-awareness or minor tweaks change the game. They don’t. I agree with the Green’s proposed alternate title for Paper Towns; trouble is, the movie is yet another exhibit in favor of that argument.
Paper Towns is out Friday.