Paper Heart opens Friday in select theaters
Comedian and musician Charlyne Yi is not sure whether she's capable of love. To find out if it exists, she's teamed up with her friend, director Nicholas Jasenovec, to make the intentionally slight hybrid film Paper Heart. The result is partly a mockumentary in which actor Michael Cera courts Yi, and partly a documentary in which Yi journeys the country on a quest to find out if love exists.
Actually, quest is a strong word for what she does here, giggling her way through interviews with a handful of people—a judge-lawyer husband-and-wife combo, Harley enthusiasts, an author of romance novels, a gaggle of adorable kids on a playground—about their definitions of love.
It's not clear why Yi, who co-wrote and co-produced the film, and Jasenovec think they can find an explanation for Yi's heart handicap by making Paper Heart, especially as they play up Yi's aversion to preparing for her interviews and her decidedly noninvestigative style of conversation. There is so much front-loaded setup—"watch us make this movie you're about to watch, here's what it's about, here's why we made it"—that Paper Heart spends more time explaining its existence than earning our attention. Paper Heart pretends to ask a Big Question—does love exist?—but it is little more than a feature-length head shot for Yi.
Still, I'd be lying (and I'm tempted to) if I said I didn't laugh frequently and even find myself touched more than once (more on that in a minute), but I was distracted throughout by Yi's cluelessness. Do she and Jasenovec really not realize that Yi is—how to put this kindly—super annoying?
I'm sure I am not alone in finding Yi's corny songs and giggle fits grating; even one of her friends (the comedian Demetri Martin) tries to tactfully ask Yi if the reason she's never been in love is that she's not loveable. He doesn't mean it to sound nasty, but it's a question that nags at the entire movie. Yi slips between saying that she wonders whether she is capable of love and whether love exists at all, using the two questions interchangeably. The implied idea is that if Yi can't love then it must not exist. This makes the question at the heart of the movie feel both too big for Yi to handle and deplorably narcissistic.
I'm not sure if the scenes that work could have carried the movie more. While it's a plastic setup, I like that a key moment in her nascent relationship with Cera is a trip to the grocery store. And while Yi doesn't bring out insights in her interviewees, most of them are so genuine that I was happy to hear them tell stories about their relationships and ideas about love.
If Paper Heart consisted entirely of these kinds of anecdotes, it would turn to treacle fast. What it needs is some kind of insight (not necessarily commentary, but some structural dynamism) to make it sparkle. In place of that, it could coast on sincerity, but I think Paper Heart aims to deceive. It pretends to be an honest film that can't quite find the answer, but it sets itself up to intentionally avoid insight, asking a question with an answer that's simultaneously unknowable and self-evident. Does love exist? Obviously. Unless it doesn't.