“Paper Heart” is the kind of movie that’s so aggressively twee in its indie hoodie-and-battered-Pumas appeal, so “we’re being this cute totally in the name of irony” that it sputters in parts and occasionally threatens to lose our interest. We almost stop caring. How much low-budge, quasi-documentary ruminations about love can we stand?
When actors like Michael Cera and Charlyne Yi (remember Martin’s perpetually baked squeeze in Apatow’s “Knocked Up”?) are involved, the answer is “a whole, whole lot.” Cera and Yi, a real-life couple (we think) during filming, lend much authenticity to a movie that has a shaky-at-best foothold in reality. These two have a shy, tremulous chemistry that feels surprisingly real, and it’s this banter — illustrated beautifully while they shop for groceries, or have dinner in some dive — that holds our attention and tugs (well, more like a polite “um, excuse me, please?”) at our heartstrings. Somehow Cera and Yi create a budding romance on camera that seems tentative and true. Considering they’d already met and were dating in real life … well, let’s call it talent and leave it at that.
It’s no accident, I suspect, that Yi and Cera’s performances are deceptive, since Yi and Nicholas Jasenovec made “Paper Heart” a devious film that teases us to decide what’s real and what’s not. While the premise is simple, the follow-through is anything but: Yi, with her thick glasses and forever-mussed ponytail, takes off across the United States on a journey to discover what love is. Since she doesn’t understand it or believe she’s capable of finding it herself, she interviews everyone — divorcees, gay and straight couples, remarkably self-assured children on an Atlanta playground. (This last interaction spawns the movie’s funniest line, about how when you truly love someone you take them to Applebee’s and buy them wings. Amen, little one.) Her friend Nicholas Jasenovec (played not by Jasenovec himself but by actor Jake M. Johnson), also a filmmaker and her producer, films everything, including her meet-awkward with Michael Cera, more or less playing himself, at a party one night. Cera’s taken with her, calls her “mysterious,” and thus begins a courtship of studiedly clever instant messages (he proposes marriage early on), hand-in-hand searches for dinner at the local market and one sweetly disarming first kiss. All the filming, though, strains the new relationship, and pressures Yi to define, in no uncertain terms, what she’s found … even though she has no clue.
This all seems a little muddy, right? It’s meant to be. Or at least I think it is. We cannot know what’s really happening, if Yi and Cera are just actors putting us on or if they really feel what they say they feel. Maybe it’s a little of both. Even more puzzling is that we do not know how “Paper Heart” ends. Yi and Jasenovec aren’t about to let us in on the joke if there is one. This is frustrating, maddening and so underhanded that it’s tempting not to care at all. Johnson-playing-Jasenovec seems to express our frustrations here, insisting he film everything the young couple does and says. He, like us, seems to ask: This is a documentary-of-sorts; we’re making voyeurs out of our viewers here, so why the furtiveness? Then there’s the fact that Yi and Cera won’t allow us in certain parts of their relationship. Maybe that part fits. Relationships look different to the people outside of them, after all. There are places the camera and microphone should not capture.
So, yes, all the uncertainty and the feelings of being hoodwinked and generally jerked around — these make it difficult at times to harbor much affection for “Paper Heart.” But enough cannot be said of Yi’s talent as an actress, a script writer, a comedian. What a chameleon she is: shy and outgoing, ambitious and timid, spontaneous and guarded. She epitomizes what Whitman meant when he wrote “I contain multitudes.” Try as we might, we cannot pin her down. And so “Paper Heart” succeeds in its small way because Yi herself, much like love, is an endless source of mystery and fascination.