Paper Heart (United States, 2009)

August 10, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Paper Heart Poster

Paper Heart is the latest in the so called "meta documentary" genre that mixes and tangles a fictional narrative with actual documentary footage. Like last year's American Teen, the ability to see the seams and sniff out the fictitious elements deflates a large portion of the movie's effectiveness. While there's some pleasure to be had spending about 90 minutes in the company of the easy-going Charlyne Yi, the end product feels trite and unfinished, with the romantic plot being awkwardly and unconvincingly shoehorned into a production that lacks focus.

The "idea" behind the film is that comedian/actress/musician Charlyne Yi, and 23-year old Asian American based on Los Angeles, is looking to understand the concept of "love." According to her, she has never been in love and believes herself to be immune to its raptures. So she wants to understand what she's missing and why it is considered so important to the human experience. After all, if she's content with her life and love brings pain to so many who suffer through it, why seek it out? A documentary filmmaker (played by actor Jake M. Johnson) films her as she travels from city-to-city interviewing people about love. Among those she meets are couples who have been married for more than a half-century, an Elvis impersonator who runs a wedding chapel in Las Vegas, scientists who explain about the chemistry of love, and members of a bike gang. She learns about platonic love and romantic love (but, except during a conversation with two gay men, the word "sex" goes unmentioned, which seems curious) but doesn't seem any closer to any "truth" than when she started.

Along the way, her path crosses with that of actor Michael Cera. This is where the fiction kicks in. Cera is attracted to Charlyne and pursues her until she gives in and agrees to go on a date with him. Soon, they are a couple, but Charlyne won't admit to being in love with him and the constant presence of the camera crew sours his enthusiasm for spending time with her.

The segments of Paper Heart purporting to chronicle the relationship between Cera and Charlyne (which may have some basis in fact, since the two were romantically linked at a point before the film went into production) are obviously fake. Cera plays a caricature of himself who is ill at ease whenever the camera is pointed at him. And the concept that there would need to be a camera crew present to record Charlyne's life is ludicrous - advancements in electronics would allow private moments to be captured without any sense of intrusion. The problem with this element of the movie isn't the concept that two people could fall for each other under similar circumstances, but the unconvincing manner in which the "documentary" footage is presented. The only one who seems real is Charlyne.

The genuine documentary moments offer little in the way of interest or insight. Recognizing this, the filmmakers attempt to liven them up with colorful dioramas to "re-create" memories and anecdotes discussed by the participants, but the overall effect is amateurish and overly cute. The filmmakers are unable to find one individual to make any insightful comment about love, which is surprising considering how rich the subject matter is. And the integration of the narrative and documentary aspects into a cohesive whole is, at best, uneven.

The fantasy that Cera and Charlyne are involved provides a reason to stick with the film - its observations about love are so trite that they would be rejected for a TV documentary - but it doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to recognize how little "reality" there is in this relationship. Building the movie around Charlyne (whose previous limited movie experience includes a part in Knocked Up) is a sound move. She's comfortable in front of the camera, has an infectious personality, and is able to show the stages of love (which she denies) as her friendship with Cera deepens. Cera is disappointing playing a version of himself that amplifies the question of whether there's much of a line between the actor and the characters he portrays.

Paper Heart was a favorite at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, and it has the kind of vibe that only a festival audience could love. It's easy to see how this quirky, offbeat approach could seem refreshing within the rarefied, hermetic atmosphere of a festival. Elsewhere, however, it comes across as amateurish and considerably less charming.

Paper Heart (United States, 2009)

Director: Nicholas Jasenovec
Cast: Charlyne Yi, Michael Cera, Jake M. Johnson
Screenplay: Nicolas Jasenovec & Charlyne Yi
Cinematography: Jay Hunter
U.S. Distributor: Overture Films
Run Time: 1:25
U.S. Release Date: 2009-08-07
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Mature Themes)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1