Movie review by Greg Carlson
Like a less ambitious Sacha Baron Cohen, musician/actor/comic/diorama architect Charlyne Yi constructs in “Paper Heart” a world in which the phony and the real are so blurry they are nearly indistinguishable from one another. Co-scripted with director Nick Jasenovec, who is played onscreen by actor Jake M. Johnson, the movie begins with Yi attempting to interview passersby about the meaning of love and ends with her own expectations and understandings of romance suitably reconfigured. “Paper Heart” wears its aloofness and nonchalance on the sleeve of its zippered hoodie, and Yi’s carefully formulated outsider persona elevates social awkwardness to performance art.
A minor cult personality best known outside of live comedy as the stoned girlfriend of Martin Starr’s character in “Knocked Up,” Yi projects an eccentricity that has a way of dividing viewer opinion. Her oddball interviewer/documentarian guise is nowhere near as elaborate as Baron Cohen’s Ali G, Borat, and Bruno, but Yi’s what-you-see-is-what-you-get faux earnestness plays to a different muse than Baron Cohen’s biting satire. Yi states at the outset that she does not think herself capable of love, and that strange and suspect claim becomes the engine that drives the rest of the feature. To its detriment, “Paper Heart” opts for geographical breadth over philosophical depth, despite an intention to explore one of humankind’s fundamental questions.
Baron Cohen’s wild, disruptive figures contrast with the personality of their creator, but Yi is playing a “character” named Charlyne Yi, and the conceit inspires a similar game which makes you wonder just how much Charlyne Yi is like “Charlyne Yi.” In one scene, Yi is shown performing onstage, and she fools with observers in a Michel Gondry-like illusion, getting the audience to wonder whether her hair is a wig – which she then removes to reveal an identical coiffure underneath. The gag functions as a working metaphor for the whole of “Paper Heart”: it’s a rabbit hole in which logic is a balloon meant to be pricked with the pin of the performer’s trickery.
Michael Cera, who is considerably better known than Yi, plays, as you would expect, a character named Michael Cera, and his droll self-consciousness matches the adorable geek he played on television’s “Arrested Development” and later in movies like “Juno,” and “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.” Cera quips his way through a series of scenes in which he and Yi fall for each other, but the movie’s alliance with slackerdom robs the fictional storyline’s predictable flirtation-relationship-breakup-reconciliation trajectory of anything that might distinguish it from dozens of other girl-meets-boy yarns.
Somewhat surprisingly, the best parts of “Paper Heart” are the unscripted interviews that Yi conducts with a cross section of average folks (and a few of her famous acquaintances) across the United States. She visits a biker bar, a Vegas wedding chapel, a divorce court, a playground, and several other spots, listening to humorous, clever, and almost heartbreaking tales revolving around the movie’s thematic quest to understand romantic love. These interactions are often accompanied by reenactments in Yi’s handmade puppet theatres, which typify a folksy, do-it-yourself aesthetic that helps to maintain an ironic distance between filmmaker and audience. Unfortunately, the puppet theatre’s cutesy vibe, while in keeping with the facile values of “Paper Heart,” merely reinforces the sense of alienation.
This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/31/09.