Here’s the thing about Paper Towns, the latest John Green adaptation to make its way to the big screen, this one about a boy on a mission to find his dreamy disappearing neighbor. You could cast a young Meryl Streep, and Margo Roth Spiegelman would still be a terrible character for an actor to have to play. It’s not just that Margo’s a self-conscious construct—she’s somehow a self-conscious construct of a self-conscious construct. A Manic Pixie Dream Girl that the movie gets to excuse because the point is that she’s a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
However, Paper Towns doesn’t have a young Meryl Streep on hand. Instead, director Jake Schreier has called Cara Delevingne, Karl Lagerfeld’s supermodel avatar of the Instagram generation, a veritable fashion sensation—and a film newbie. Paper Towns is Delevingne’s first lead role, but this won’t be the last audiences see of her, like it or not, as film follows fashion, and Hollywood prepares to make Delevingne potentially as big a star in theaters as she is in print.
The problem with Paper Towns is that it’s a teen movie about teen movies—filled with teen movie types and nary a human being in sight. There’s something tremendously ironic about watching paper-thin characters condemn their surroundings as “paper towns,” but this movie isn’t smart enough to grasp its own central hypocrisy. The dialogue, much of it seemingly lifted with reverence from John Green’s novel, is maybe the kind of material that works better in a book, where you don’t have to hear what the words actually sound like when they’re spilling from someone’s mouth. But film is nowhere near as forgiving as the page, and digital even less so. These kids sound fake, they look fake, their movie makeup is visible and flaking under the unflinching eye of the 4K camera, and no one is affected more than Margo Spiegelman, who has the misfortune of being the one saddled with the worst of the film’s many second-rate references to much better work.
That Hollywood can’t help itself from making movies about movies and not about people is not exactly a new phenomenon, but it’s become an increasingly common one in the sequel era, as films are franchised and purposefully designed to look like one another. In particular, this self-referential design has struck the teen movie hard, and romance even harder. Lacking writers with an ear for the specificities of real human interaction and seemingly lacking faith that real human interaction might be interesting to audiences, studios make movies that mimic older films made by filmmakers who did possess those gifts in hope that the original equation was strong enough to deliver results even in a derivative form.
So for her first big outing Delevingne is saddled with an impossible task: convince the audience that Margo Roth Spiegelman is a human being in a movie that flat out refuses to see her as such. And how does Delevingne fare with this herculean task? Well, she’s deeply annoying, but she’s not uninteresting.
Delevingne leans hard onto the elements of Margo Roth Spiegelman that are most irritating—her selfishness, her recklessness—and it’s maybe an accident, but it’s these elements of the character that feel most like a real person. If she were an actual high school student, the kind that doesn’t get meaningful monologues and even more meaningful slow-motion introductions, Margo Roth Spiegelman would be the fucking worst and that’s how Delevingne plays her. Her American accent is labored, but she’s loose physically, and if Margo was never going to be worth watching, Delevingne surprisingly is. She’s not dead in the eyes the way that Kate Upton was in The Other Woman, and if she’s not exactly appealing, her unappealingness is more interesting than what the movie actually calls for, which is a writer’s idea of a boy’s idea of a girl; a bland enigma at best. I can’t say I’m interested in watching Delevingne do another sappy love scene, but judging by her performance she isn’t either, and you’ve got to give some credit to that instinct.
Delevingne’s bustling IMDb page has got all the kinds of films that roles in teen fare like Paper Towns are supposed to lead to—fantasy (Pan), sci-fi (Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets), historical drama (Tulip Fever), thrillers (London Fields), action (Suicide Squad), work with studios and auteurs alike. It isn’t the first time Delevingne has had the expectations (and the multimillion-dollar investments) of an industry held on her slim shoulders. But when your testing ground is Paper Towns, you might as well be flying blind.
Can she act? Hollywood sure hopes so. But if Paper Towns is all that’s on the table, well…I’ll believe it when I see it.