According to one of the starry-eyed children interviewed at an Atlanta playground during Nicholas Jasenovec’s mockumentary Paper Heart, the most romantic place to take a woman on a date is Applebee’s. Somehow, the child’s utterance is perfect for the movie’s subject, mumbly and ironically inexpressive comic and musician Charlyne Yi, who, for the purposes of the film, doesn’t believe she could ever love anyone. Her famous friends (Yi played the stoned girlfriend of Martin Starr in Knocked Up) encourage her to discover herself, in one cannily placed cameo after another, including Seth Rogen, Martin Starr, David Krumholtz, eventual “love interest” Michael Cera, and the most appropriate considering the twee style of Paper Heart, comic Demetri Martin. In the kingdom of twee, the man who casts Demetri Martin in his movie is king.
Martin is a very funny comic in his own right (especially his short lived Comedy Central show, Important Things), and oddly he seems the most ill-at-ease with the invasive camera during his brief time onscreen (“Maybe you can’t find love because you’re not lovable?… I think you’re very valuable”). Perhaps Martin knew what co-writers Yi and Jasenovec were up to with their Wes Anderson title card and multiple extended bits of paper figure animation, cementing the film’s “we’re just kidding, no we mean it, aren’t we sweet? Just kidding” tone and rejected the disingenuous sincerity.
That patronizing attitude mars the attempts at honesty in the film, as Yi and the actor playing Jasenovec, Jake Johnson, travel the country asking random people on the street what love is and what it means to them. When Yi’s relationship with Cera begins to “unexpectedly” develop, it starts to interfere with the documentary process, and the blooming love causes Yi to go from stiff and robotic tomboy with a rubbery double chin* to animated and expressive robotic tomboy with a rubbery double chin (her closest visual resemblance would be to Slimer, the best [apparition] friend of the Ghostbusters). What makes Yi funny and charming as a comic is her stunted, self-aware fidgetiness, done with a nerdy wink. None of these traits appear in Paper Heart, meaning it could come quite easily to the viewer to not care what happens to her. And Cera’s personality seems to come right from his standard film role (Juno, Superbad), wearing a colorful array of hooded sweatshirts and Keds sneakers, while Knochwursting his way into Yi’s heart (Knochwursting = Knock Kneed and Awkward). The phoniness isn’t helped by Cera’s constantly drinking cans of soda and beer in his early scenes, making sure to show us the label.
That’s not to say that Paper Heart isn’t sweet or funny, there’s a wonderful scene in New York where Yi interviews a long committed gay couple and the younger of the two talks about the first time he was at his partner’s house and seeing an urn containing the ashes of the man’s late boyfriend (referred to as an “ex in a box”). The trip across the USA produces some fascinating stories of coupling, which means we get one where a woman is forced to go out on a date with her future husband by her boss, under threat of losing her job, a sort of sexual harassment by proxy. And despite the contrived nature of the film, Yi’s romance with Cera, faked or not, is well done, even if all the scenes captured are just “too perfect.” Yi seems to view the world as a series of distractions from her misery, represented by a song she writes for and about Cera, a Weezer-esque bit of nerd rock called You Smell Like Christmas. At first the song is irritating, but it sticks in your head and just like Paper Heart, the song is annoyingly hummable. I can’t think of a higher recommendation.
* Yi is not the least bit heavy; the double chin is created by her literally long face and discomfort with herself.