Directed by Nicholas Jasenovec
What is love? Ask a stupid question and you get a stupid movie. Paper Heart, a "50 percent documentary" for tweens and by (people with the mental capacity of) tweens, stars Charlyne Yi, a button-cheeked grinner best known hitherto for a brief but memorable appearance as a stoner chick in Knocked Up; she makes a poor narrator — she's not particularly charming or smart — and the film's thesis smacks of disingenuous gimmickry: Yi believes that love doesn't exist, or at least that she can't feel it. She wishes she were so sociopathic! Instead, she comes off as a college-aged kid who thinks she's smarter than everyone else — or, boo hoo, just doesn't fit in to a love-rife society. She and her director Jasenovec (played on-screen by Jake Johnson) travel the country (including a quick trip to NYC so they can find some gays), interviewing Ordinary People — high school sweethearts, musicians, bikers, romance novelists, divorce professionals, biochemists, kids at a playground — on the subject of love, true and otherwise.
Those interviews are stunningly banal, full of pat insights followed by stories both cautionary and optimistic about love lost and found. (The filmmakers often illustrate the anecdotes with crude puppetry.) It's not the subjects' faults: they have good tales to tell the grandkids, maybe, but not the whole world; we've all already heard similarly unremarkable stories from our own friends, grandparents, uncles and favorite television characters. And Yi, for all her professed self-assuredness, is too timid or polite to ever challenge the subjects with whom she disagrees. But the interviews are only half the story, the true documentary stuff; they serve as a backdrop to Yi's own developing romance with Michael Cera (her real-life boyfriend until recently, according to some accounts), playing himself in the film's scripted, ersatz-documentary, behind-the-scenes portions.
And it's here that Paper Heart might have been interesting, as the couple's relationship plays out against the constant presence of a camera crew: a date ends with Cera returning the microphone that's taped under his shirt; a walk on the beach at sunset is interrupted by the fake Jasenovec with directions: "put your arm around her?" Their first kiss is followed by a shot of the grinning crew a few feet away. Paper Heart could have been a commentary on the ubiquitous-camera culture, or a Stranger than Fiction-esque metanarrative about fictional characters manipulated and driven apart by their godhead creator. Instead, it settles for the stale mediocrity of the literal.
Opens August 7
Plus: The L Magazine interviews Charlyne Yi