With the release of the new Paper Towns trailer, it's clear that star Nat Wolff can go one of many ways with his career after the release of this film. The 20-year-old actor spent 2014 testing the waters of several different realms of cinema. Leaning on the lowest of brows, Wolff starred in the sex comedy Bad Behavior, opposite Selena Gomez and a team of adult supporting players who we can’t help but pity. Legions away from Bad Behavior in terms of critical esteem was another of Wolff’s high school-set pictures, Palo Alto. The beautifully feverish testament to teenage ennui showcased unexpected prowess in both newcomer director Gia Coppola and Wolff himself, the strongest performer among Coppola’s young cast. Finally, Wolff’s highest profile picture: The Fault in Our Stars, a schmaltzy cancer-themed romance that relegated Wolff to the backdrop as stars Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort took the spotlight.
This year, Wolff graduates to headlining position in the cinematic extrapolation of John Green’s bibliography, from whence The Fault in Our Stars came. Paper Towns , looks to fall in step with the former. He plays a young man ensconced in the mysticism of a strange and creative classmate who suddenly disappears after the pair shares a magical night together. As we might expect, love and self-discovery seem to ensue.
Although the most buzzworthy of the bunch, Paper Towns is not the only Wolff film that will hit theaters in 2015. He also appears in Grandma, a Paul Weitz-directed comedy about an elderly misanthrope’s (Lily Tomlin) relationship with her desperate granddaughter (Julia Garner), which debuted at Sundance Film Festival and will hold a spot on the Tribeca Film Festival’s lineup.
Wolff will star more prominently in the dramedy Ashby opposite Mickey Rourke, and play supporting roles in the Nancy Meyers film The Intern and in his Palo Alto costar James’ Franco’s period piece In Dubious Battle. A wide variety of projects, just as his previous year in the theaters turned out to be.
So which version of Wolff will take the reins from here on out?
Behaving Badly might have been the actor’s first true starring vehicle, but it was also the least imaginative and most gruesomely witless of the projects he has boarded so far. The Fault in Our Stars showed gleaming talent in a supporting Wolff, and will likely lend its crowd-pleasing, tear-jerking schmaltz (and, likewise, Wolff’s amenable acumen for mixing sorrow and humor) to follow-up Green adaptation Paper Towns .
It’s the sort of work that Wolff did in Palo Alto that really impresses, and that should be explored further if he is to reach his full potential as a performer. But we shouldn’t necessarily hold our breath for a continuation of the form.
Terrible writing and direction aside, Bad Behavior was a misstep for Wolff, as his innate empathy and underdog charisma makes him unfit for the smug, jerky sex romps that behold teen comedies of the like. Movies like Fault and Paper Towns are more up to speed with Wolff’s sensibilities: he manages the perfect mix of sad and dopey with funny and clever, of handsome and alluring with relatable and even pitiable. Exactly the kind of supporting character and hero so wonderfully conducive to the types of stories that power novelist Green keeps telling.
But Wolff has so much more in him than likability. He can go deep and dark, exploring humanity in much edgier and more explosive ways, as seen in Palo Alto. The movie, hardly as “pleasant” as Fault or Paper Towns, doesn’t exactly warm us up to Wolff with humor and tears. It alienates us from him through his wicked barbs until we come to recognize him as the most tragically empathetic character of the lot.
Perhaps Franco’s next vehicle will allot the same kind of experimentation for Wolff. Maybe his work opposite Rourke in Ashby will shine a needed light on the actor’s talent in a form more conducive to audience response. But hopefully we won’t see Wolff stick so rigidly to the works of John Green…or, even worse, take on another movie like Bad Behavior.
Images: 20th Century Fox (3)