Charlyne Yi in the part-documentary, part put-on, Paper Heart.
Dir. Nicholas Jasenovec
Out on DVD December 1st
The premise of half-fiction, half-documentary Paper Heart is simple, if impossible. Charlyne Yi (as herself) sets off on a quest across America to answer one question: “What is love?” Yi doesn’t believe it can happen, and travels from Las Vegas to Nashville, collecting the romantic history of strangers to prove it exists.
That’s the documentary part. Then Yi “meets” Canadian comedian Michael Cera (playing himself) at a party, and they begin a timid, if manufactured, relationship. That’s the fiction. The film that results is too sincere to be called a mockumentary, at least in a post-Borat world, since it shows respect for its subject. There’s a diverse panel of romantic veterans, including a divorcée, a romance novelist, a golden anniversary pair, and a gay couple, sharing snippets from their ordinary love lives.
At first, the feigned love story between the stoned girlfriend from Knocked Up and a guy too skinny to be an American Apparel model isn’t quite as enthralling as you’d think, and the early scenes of their “courtship” feel like two kids pushed together in an improv class without any cues. It’s only when the two seem to genuinely connect that the pretend romance pays off. Granted, the fact that Cera and Yi started dating offscreen probably helped them onscreen. They’ve since broken up—most blame Cera’s rising star, growing ego and young age— though some claim they were never together, and have proclaimed it a big hipster in-joke.
Despite all the meta-confusion, the film survives, thanks to the dopey appeal of its heroine. Awkward but adorable, Yi lives behind too-big glasses and a rotating wardrobe of weather-beaten hoodies. She’s too affable and trusting to be judgemental, making her able to ask a question as big and unanswerable as “But how do you know if you really love someone?” without sounding like a narcissistic Gen Y-er.
Cera, who’s been playing the same awkward, mumbling boy-child for years, is also charming here, relieved of the burden of being anything other than himself.
And you know what? This film works out. Yi’s aim is true, and she’s just a young girl confused about love. It’s her earnest desire to cut through the tangled fairytales to understand real, grown-up love which makes Paper Heart a charming experiment, even if it is slightly uneven. It would make a sugary holiday rental—just be prepared for some painfully awkward dating flashbacks.