All Abut the Like
“All my ideas kind of came from movies and fairy tales,” says Charlyne Yi. These ideas have to do with love, she continues, and woe is her, they’re all false. As she speaks, she remembers herself as a child watching Kermit and Miss Piggy’s wedding, a very cute moment that’s nicely illustrated by home movie footage. Alas, such moments apparently ruined her. Now, Yi asserts, she doesn’t believe in love. And now, she’s going to make a movie about her disappointment.
This is the gimmicky premise of Paper Heart, in which Yi and her director friend Nick (Jake M. Johnson), perhaps fashioned after the movie’s director Nick Jasenovec, set out to make a documentary. They’ll “go on the road,” fictional Nick says, “and talk to people to see if that changes the way you think about love.” Yi’s playing herself—or more accurately, her not-always convincing comic performance art self—and Nick’s a fictional character. He’s making scripted suggestions and demands, and she’s asking ostensibly strangers on the street about their feelings on love or how they met or when they were married. Repeatedly, as she listens to their stories—some regular, others unusual, many entertaining—the camera cuts to her quizzical face or her interpretation of their story via handmade puppets. In all cases, the emphasis is on Yi’s adorability: poor child, she must be reassured that those movies and fairy tales are true after all.
“The trouble with true love,” Yi learns from one interview subject, “is that it has to be on both sides.” Mike talks to her over a pool table in Nashville, dead animals’ heads and a portrait of John Wayne mounted on the walls above him. As he describes his own near-drowning experience, paper cutouts show he was saved by his true love’s appearance to him, calling him back from the brink of death. A follow-up interview with a professor from Texas Tech suggests that love is a function of “additional secretions,” creating a sensation “similar to a drug-induced state.” Hmm, Yi wonders, could she have been “born without these chemicals”? Oh no, he assures her, she just needs to be “careful not to get too scientific that you forget the magic.”
Back to those ideas again. Yi’s adventure is conveniently complicated when she spends a few minutes at a party in Los Angeles and meets Michael Cera, her real-life boyfriend playing a version of himself. “I’m making a documentary about me,” she explains, when he notices the camera following her around. “About how I don’t believe in love.” He raises and eyebrow and smiles. “Cool,” he offers, “Awesome.”
Observing they feel a mutual attraction that night, Nick the fictional character, encourages Yi to pursue a relationship with Cera, because it will be good for the film, and oh yes, it may help her work through those troubling “ideas.” It seems that the self-professed disbeliever Yi really wants to believe, she wants to be in love and think it’s true, and she wants to document her transformation. As she hears couples’ recollections of courting on Harleys, weddings in Vegas chapels, insta-teenaged smittenness, and precious wisdom (“It’s all about the like, you have to like each other”), she yearns to share their joy and their faith, their “ideas.”
At the same time, as Yi and Cera come to “like” each other, the movie is increasingly focused on the tension between their supposedly real romance and the camera’s imposition of structure and self-consciousness. With this shift, Paper Heart, for all its initial and multiply underlined hybrid oddity, becomes a very regular movie.
What’s regular here is not just the standard arc of the love story—girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy—but also the film’s disappointing lack of imagination. Cera gets to play the sympathetic and frankly sane person, raising the obvious question: even as Yi goes along with Nick’s irritating dedication to the film (“You’re going on a date!” he smiles when Yi reports they’re going to “eat and watch a movie,” then insists that he and the cameraperson tag along), Cera wonders out loud about the camera’s effects on their romance, which is less and less real-seeming by the minute.
So, the film records the film’s intrusion. Yi and Cera walk on a beach, while Nick uses a bullhorn to suggest they might “want to do anything, like an arm around each other.” They decline, as if righteously preserving the reality of their private selves. They go to a zoo, shop in a supermarket, order pizza, ride in a car, their meandering conversations repeatedly coming back to the question of the film. “I was wondering,” Yi asks Nick, “if we always have to shoot me and Michael.” Nick plays villain to perpetuate the fictional tension: “We did agree to do this,” he says, his tone didactic. “That’s where the story’s going.”
At this point you may be asking how any of this matters, the “story” or “where it’s going,” or if turning the camera off might be a good idea. The movie depends on a couple of things: Cera’s familiar charming persona and Yi’s ever perplexed persona. Their story isn’t actually going anywhere new, but Paper Heart puts you in a vexing position, maybe laughing at Yi’s slow-on-the-uptake performance, maybe laughing with her… at herself, at her absurd situation, at her “ideas.”