What is it with all these quirky kids making such truthful and mature movies about love? We only recently saw the pitch-perfect (500) Days of Summer, written and directed by a bunch of supremely talented newcomers. Now here comes Paper Heart, the feature-film debut of web-video auteur Nicholas Jasenovic and starring oddball comedienne Charlyne Yi. Having graduated from the arena of funny online videos, Yi and Jasenovic jump into the deep end with a meta-documentary about the meaning of ‘love’. Pieced together like a high-school art project with a decent budget, Paper Heart is a warm and humorous adventure. You have to wonder how these two can deliver such a sensitive and magical portrayal of love on the big screen, especially when compared to vile “romantic-comedies” like The Ugly Truth. I can only shudder. To think that film was made by adults!
Charlyne Yi is our childlike leading lady and … wow. If this isn’t the breakout role of the year I don’t know what is. Sure, Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds was a revelation and Sharlto Copley in District 9 was fascinating, but neither were quite as huggable as Charlyne. Playing herself, she is convinced by friend and filmmaker Nicholas Jasenovic (portrayed in the movie by Jake M. Johnson) to document her attempts at understanding romance. Charlyne fears that her inability to love will eventually cause her to die an old, unhappy spinster. Not that she seems too worried about it; good luck prying that infectious smile off of her mug.
Charlyne and Nic travel the country interviewing real Americans about their experiences with and their definitions of love. She speaks to married couples, divorcees, precocious children, gay couples, recently married teenagers and even a biker gang, illustrating their stories with hilariously quaint puppet shows. However, their tales don’t cause her heart to flutter the way she had hoped. That is, until she meets a friend of Nic called Michael Cera (played by the Michael Cera), a semi-successful actor who might have a little bit of a crush on our heroine. And maybe, umm, well, maybe, Charlyne, kinda, like, well, maybe, likes, Michael Cera too, maybe.
While the interviews Charlyne holds on the road are as real as American Apple Pie, it’s important to note that the love story between Charlyne and Michael is fictional and scripted. Just in case anyone out there was planning on accusing the film of manipulating the audience. Again, this is a film in which the director has cast an actor to portray himself on screen, so if they’re trying to scam us into thinking this is all real, they’re not doing a very good job of it. However, the relationship between Charlyne and Michael does feel real; their real-life friendship shines through and delivers some beautiful onscreen chemistry. Sadly, sometimes their innocence and sweetness feels like little more than teenage infatuation. When it comes time to introduce some harsh truths into their world, the film pulls back right when you want it to go for the jugular.
Paper Heart is a gem of a movie. It’s warm and gooey core melts away any narrative shortcomings. For instance, if I were to nitpick, the central thesis of the film doesn’t exactly allow for a wholly satisfying ending. But how can I justify a complaint like that when the film fully acknowledges this problem and delivers an alternative, irrelevant and completely enchanting final sequence. Yi is such a delightful tour guide, I feel as if I could watch her in any movie she threw at me; even ones with even more threadbare plots than this. I also have to give some love to her male counterparts. Although Cera is often accused of playing himself, here he takes it to the nth degree, playing ‘himself’ like we’ve never seen; making his passive-aggressive shtick feel less like awkward embarrassment and more like angry frustration. Johnson, as the omnipresent director, teeters between devoted friend and exploitative filmmaker. He pulls off a tricky role and I can’t wait to see this guy in more movies.
Paper Heart doesn’t unearth the meaning of ‘love’ (spoiler alert?) but it at least shows us how real human beings deal with all those confusing emotions that might equal something close to it. This movie is genuine and naive and wonderful. Whether Charlyne Yi believes in love or not, she has delivered a film which will have people the world over falling in love with her.
NB: The script, co-written by Jasenovic and Yi, picked up the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance earlier this year.