Saturday, August 08, 2015

Paper Towns/Irrational Man (mild spoilers)

Paper Towns is the latest slice of cinematic earnestness based on the writings of John Green, whose The Fault In Our Stars served as a lesson about death for a generation who can’t quite remember what happens in those middle Harry Potter books. This new film, directed by Jake Schreier, is a pleasant but formulaic piece of work that owes a debt to John Hughes films of the 1980’s in the same way that The Fault In Our Stars owes a nod to Love Story and an apology to Anne Frank. Quentin (Nat Wolff) is a straight arrow Orlando teen who one night joins neighbor and former childhood friend Margo (Cara Delevingne) as she carries out an evening of revenge pranks on her cheating ex and her former girlfriends. Margo Roth Spiegelman - her full name is spoken aloud many times - is a brain with an artist’s soul, one who’s full of maxims about living an authentic life and scorn for her suburban existence. Delevingne can’t really suggest much of Margo’s supposed depth, but she looks good in an aviator’s cap and isn’t on screen that much anyway.

I shouldn’t dismiss Delevingne that bluntly, except that that’s exactly what Paper Towns does. Margo disappears after her night with Quentin, and among the questions Quentin doesn’t ask her when they meet again are “Do you have enough money?” and “Where are you sleeping?”. The character of Margo is meant to talk back to the trope of beautiful and eccentric women opening guys up to life, but the film is actually concerned with Quentin enjoying his last few high school weeks with his buddies (Austin Abrams and Justice Smith, both fresh-faced and funny) as they obsess over Margo’s whereabouts and attending their first party. To put it another way, Margo is a human version of the glowing case in Pulp Fiction. Margo will literally become a myth while Quentin will go on to be slightly happier. I would have had it the other way around.

*** Woody Allen’s Irrational Man is a complete non-starter, a tired recycling of Allen tropes (life’s value, murder plots, age inappropriate relationships) constructed around a preposterous performance by Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix plays a philosophy professor who existential despair is cured by the attentions of a student (Emma Stone) and by his use of murder as self-actualizing tool. I’ve rarely seen a good actor look less invested than Phoenix does here, but I’m even more concerned that Woody Allen has lost the ability to tell a story in a dialogue and images. Both Phoenix and Stone’s characters have on-the-nose voiceovers which elide almost every bit of spontaneity and surprise in their scenes. Was it just cheaper to tell the story from a recording booth? Only Parker Posey, as a faculty member after Phoenix, has anything fun to offer. Posey’s brittleness is well-used here and her scenes are the only time that the film feels like it could go somewhere worthwhile. Emma Stone is wasted, and Irrational Man winds up as a limp disappointment.

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