Part documentary, part fictional romcom, and all twee, “Paper Heart” is a little movie that will delight some people but turn others off with its extravagant quirkiness. By turns oddly amusing and infuriatingly smug, it’s bound to become a cult item of sorts, but it’s likely the cult will be small.
The thrust of the picture is documentary footage showing Charlyne Yi, known for a stand-up routine in which she appears in big glasses and messy clothes as a sweetly uber-nerdy oddball (and for a brief part in “Knocked Up”), going cross-country to interview ordinary folk about love. (The key is that she’s doubtful about the possibility of real love herself.) But even this part of the film is questionably “non-fiction” as most of the interviewees have been pre-selected and the fellow playing director Nicholas Jasenovec is actually an actor (Jake M. Johnson), blurring the line between reality and fiction even more. The ambiguity is further increased by the device of using hand-made puppets to act out some of the stories the interview subjects relate—a cute way of lessening the “talking head” syndrome so common in documentaries, but hardly one that encourages faith in the content.
And that truth-vs.-falsehood line is definitely crossed in the second major part of the picture, an entirely made-up romance between Yi and actor Michael Cera, playing himself. Cera is, as usual, a charmingly quirky presence, and he plays his scenes with an improvisational giddiness that’s a breath of fresh air whenever he appears. (One particularly nice scene has him apparently abandoning Yi in a restaurant and then returning to surprise her from a back-door route.) He can also switch to more serious mode convincingly.
As for Yi, she’s a more equivocal asset. Her puppets (she made them herself, with help from her father) are clever, but her goofy persona is likely to irritate as many viewers as she delights. But when she interacts, obviously spontaneously, with interviewees—the crowd at a bar, a bunch of kids in a playground—she becomes a more real, and likable, presence. Johnson doesn’t add much as the pseudo-director, though the repeated bit about his “stars” being annoyed by the crew’s intrusions is amusing enough.
The interview subjects are a varied group. Some, like wedding chapel hosts in Las Vegas—one the inevitable Elvis impersonator—are pretty standard fare. But the older couples who discuss how they met and offer vignettes about their lives together are articulate and interesting, and the pool-playing fellow at the start who talks about finding and losing love makes a different point, but an equally valid one. And those rambunctious kids can’t help but win you over. (One complaint: none of these people are identified in captions as they appear. It would be nice to be definitively told who they are.)
Technically there’s not much to be said about “Paper Heart.” Jay Hunter’s HD camerawork has a deliberately on-the-fly look even in the staged passages, and Ryan Brown’s editing is deliberately choppy. The score, by Cera and Yi, is amiable.
The picture closes with a wild parody of Yi and Cera’s romance in action-movie mode, played out in puppet form. It ends this ironic exercise on an appropriately silly note that emphasizes that it’s an all too-cool send-up, but with moments that transcend the hipster mentality it so assiduously cultivates to suggest something deeper.