In a year when we’ve been buried in mounds of the usual romantic comedy dreck (basically every movie starring Sandra Bullock, minus The Blind Side) Paper Heart, if it didn’t blow its execution, could have rung the death bell for rote romantic comedies high in treacle. After all, the hook of Paper Heart is more daring than The Proposal: It centers around comedienne Charlyne Yi, who says from the outset that she doesn’t believe in love, before she traipses across North America trying to find out what love is. At the same time, she’s “falling in love” with Michael Cera, who is starring as a fictional “Michael Cera”, and the plot becomes about Charlyne and Michael trying to start a relationship while being under the constant surveillance of movie cameras.
It’s not exactly an easy sell, so it’s no surprise Paper Heart dropped off the face of the earth a week after it was released in August. Caught between a wicked case of backlash from critics who derided it as “too cute”—perhaps out of penance for the accolades they heaped on the cutesier Juno two years ago—and people who found Yi’s awkward performance grating, Paper Heart died an undeserved ignoble death. Granted, it’s a bit of a mess, and it is damn precious (I think I could crack my DVD by just looking at it mean). But compared to All About Steve, it might as well be The 400 Blows.
Paper Heart, out now on DVD with the standard accoutrements of deleted scenes, behind the scenes footage, and other inessential extras, opens likes every post-Michael Moore documentary: with personal footage of Yi as a little girl, acting out fairy tale love and the doing voiceovers about how she doesn’t believe in “true love”. In discussing this with co-star Jake Johnson, who plays a fictional version of real-life director Nick Jasenovec, she decides to try to understand what true love really is by asking people (from kids to people who run Las Vegas wedding parlors to her comedian friends like Martin Starr, Demetri Martin and Seth Rogen) to define it for her.
The easy highlight of the documentary section is the scene with kids on a playground, mostly due to the tykes having hyper-specific ideas about what love is. One girl says all that’s needed to make ‘true love’ is to take someone to Applebee’s and give them hot wings, and they’re all yours. Then Yi gets some seriously philosophical advice from a 10-year-old boy, who seems like he’s ready to take over for Dr. Phil right now.
The documentary part never gets off the ground, partially due to the nebulous idea—how can people be expected to articulate a feeling like love?—but mostly because the movie is engulfed by the B-story, which finds the fictional Yi and Cera awkwardly working their way through the beginning of a relationship. This part, even though it’s fictional, where the earlier parts are ostensibly “real”, is Paper Heart’s greatest success, because it captures, for better or worse, the banality of human pairing. There are no weird circumstances like falling down a well, a love triangle, or someone getting hit by a car on their way to a romantic encounter: it’s just Yi and Cera having awkward dinners, holding hands on the beach, and writing gooey songs together.
Yi’s spastic performance was cited by critics as the main point of Paper Heart’s failure, but the fact that the film’s two halves never mesh in an adequate way is more damaging to its overall quality. The documentary part is abandoned and picked up at random intervals, while the love story only flirts with the larger implications brought up here: Can two people really begin to love each other in front of cameras? Can Charlyne ever fall in love, period?.
The puppet interludes that float on the film’s periphery end up closing the movie, which is unsatisfactory. The transition between the two stories is a tad sloppy in the early going as well, causing the film’s svelte 85-minutes to sometimes feel like a much longer slog.
But for a handful of fleeting moments, it feels like you’re watching something new in Paper Heart, something that hasn’t been focused-grouped to death and dumbed down to the point of it becoming the movie equivalent of a Snuggie. That it ends up leaning too heavily on its inherent goofiness and well-worn tropes (girl falls in love with guy, loses guy, has broken heart) is almost forgivable. Almost.