Charlyne Yi doesn’t believe in love. But it’s not because of past heartbreak. It’s because she’s never felt it before. So she embarks on a project with her best friend, Nick, to meet real couples and hear their stories – all in an attempt to define love and determine whether or not it truly exists or if some people are doomed to remain unloved.
Part documentary, part improvisational narrative, “Paper Heart” is an atypical yet authentic romantic comedy for people who normally find such things insufferable. For the record, I am one of those people. And “Paper Heart” charmed the jaded pants off of me.
Charlyne and Nick travel around the country interviewing anyone and everyone about love and relationships. They meet young couples and couples married 50 years. They talk to Elvis impersonators at Vegas wedding chapels and academics at universities. Meanwhile, Charlyne tries to make sense of (and resist) her budding relationship with actor Michael Cera. They both play alternate universe versions of themselves, which makes for a pretty bizarre, and totally compelling, love story.
Plus, Charlyne is not your typical leading lady. In fact, she’s a character we rarely see in any film, let alone a rom-com; the boyish woman-child. She’s not one of those fake, sexpot tomboys (i.e. Megan Fox) who wear dirty jeans and pigtails but still know how to give a smoldering sidelong glance. Charlyne is the genuine article; a girl who loves video games and fireworks, doesn’t bathe much and wouldn’t have the slightest idea what to do with an eyelash curler. She has huge glasses and a Pee Wee Herman laugh. You get the impression that you could have a great time hanging out with her and she would never ever try to steal your boyfriend.
But she starts the film as a somewhat tragic figure. She’s never had any romantic feelings toward anyone and it’s led her to believe that true love is a myth. She claims that this doesn’t bother her. That she’s mainly curious about love from an academic standpoint. However, it’s clear that the real issue is that she’s never opened herself up to anyone for fear of getting hurt. As a result, her reluctant romance with Cera is as bungling as it is cute.
The true documentary vignettes are just as enjoyable as the driving plot line. They employ puppets and two-dimensional backdrops to illustrate some of the stories that couples tell her about their courtship. Many of the interview locations are quirky and amusing such as a biker bar and a room full of mounted animal heads. These interviews also serve to mirror and foreshadow the fictional story. A romance novelist tells Charlyne that the formula for a love story is always “Romance – conflict – resolution.” It all fits together so perfectly that it’s necessary to remind yourself you aren’t actually watching Yi and Cera fall in love.
Actually, they do a little of the reminding for you. Some of the most hilarious parts involve purposeful breakage of the fourth wall. After their first date, there is an awkward goodbye at Charlyne’s car and then Michael asks “Should I give back my microphone now?” When Charlyne and Michael kiss for the first time, the camera pans around to reveal reaction shots from the crew.
There are also several really sweet moments that let the audience know Charlyne might not be as immune to love as she thinks. The song she writes for Michael (but isn’t sure if she’s going to give to him) is totally heart-rending. At that point, she’s pretty much the only one who can’t see what’s happening. The question is whether or not she will recognize it in time.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, Cera once again does his “Michael Cera thing.” Personally, I love his “thing” but know it’s not for everyone, and I agree that it doesn’t always work contextually. But trust me, here it really works.