You may remember Charlyne Yi from the movie Knocked Up, or you may not. She played the girlfriend of one of Seth Rogen's stoner friends for a couple of minutes; her big line is asking Kathryn Heigl if she wants to switch boyfriends. "Just kidding," she says, then adding, "kind of." A quick moment, but funny in its casual awkwardness, and conspicuous in that it comes from a girl allowed to look just as casually awkward as one of the stoner guys. Yi graduates from half-cameos and guest spots to her own movie with Paper Heart, a kind-of documentary vehicle in which she searches for the meaning of love and starts dating actor Michael Cera along the way. The movie becomes sort of a reality-show rom-com, with Cera playing the "real" version of his comic persona and the film project intruding on a budding relationship. Article continues below
Yi has a curious presence. Early in the film, Paper Heart shows her doing a live comedy show, and she doesn't appear to assume any shtick beyond a sort of experimental childlike goofiness. Half the joke seems to be that she's up there performing at all. Later, when she's interviewing subjects for her movie, she's sweet and giggly and a good listener, but a little unnerving, too. She lacks any affectation, any hint of actorly interest in line readings or a comedian's appreciation of timing or phrasing -- unless, of course, her awkward nervous-kid act doesn't resemble her real self, in which case the performance is stunning.
I doubt this is the case, although the film may provoke suspicion with its coyness about its documentary status: Yi and Cera really did have a relationship at some point, though probably not as depicted in the film; her friend Nick Jasenovec did direct the movie, but when he appears on camera as Nick the director, he's played by an actor, Jake Johnson. Similarly, Yi's central conceit -- that she "doesn't believe" in love, and travels the country exploring the concept -- is difficult to take seriously, even as comedy. Searching for (a) the meaning of love (b) through a rambling documentary which (c) features mainly interviews with ostensibly regular and randomly selected people has the collective na´vetÚ and, worse, the vagueness of a junior high class project.
Sometimes the faux innocence can be charming, even convincing. As Yi's interviewees talk about true love in their lives, happy and sad, she accompanies their stories with handmade Michel Gondry-ish puppet shows, seemingly taken with the idea of turning these ordinary lives into little oddball fairy tales. Though much of the movie is about her, Yi is a respectful, curious interviewer -- she lets her subjects speak and never steps over them, even when re-creating their experiences out of paper mache.
These segments are entertaining, as are the fumbling flirtations, real or fake, of Yi and Cera. But none of these diversions add up to much, which is why Paper Heart feels naggingly juvenile, unable to escape its school-project confines. It could be a low-budget calling card, if not for the lingering question of who or what, exactly, Charlyne Yi wants to call.