All-around creative type Charlyne Yi divides her time among acting in movies, performing onstage, singing and writing songs, painting and just generally making things. But she seems an unlikely host for a documentary; in Paper Heart, she’s nervously rigid, keeping her arms tucked in at her sides and shyly hiding behind her glasses, her knot of long hair and occasionally her hooded sweatshirt. At times she even appears to be trying to retract her head into her shoulders, like a turtle. Thankfully, she’s exactly the opposite of some cheery, polished wannabe who might eagerly volunteer for a project like this. (It’s the much more charming flip side of ugly TV reality shows like The Bachelorette.)
Of course, Paper Heart is not a documentary, though it looks like one and has documentary elements. Yi has announced that she doesn’t know what love is and doesn’t ever expect to find it, and so she and her co-writer and director Nicholas Jasenovec set out to discover the ramifications of these statements. (Actor Jake M. Johnson plays director Jasenovec onscreen.) They travel the country and interview several seemingly real-life couples as well as various other love experts, such as scientists and pastors at Vegas wedding chapels. Some of these people have interesting things to say on the subject, but of course, there’s nothing definitive or earth-shattering.
In the meantime, Yi meets the young actor Michael Cera (Juno, Superbad, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, etc.), who is playing himself. They start a shy, tentative, cute little relationship, which is immediately tracked and recorded by the ever-present cameras and predictably falls into trouble. Though their bond appears natural and organically growing, it turns out that Cera and Yi already knew each other in real life, and that the movie is actually scripted, at least partially (Yi and Jasenovec won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance). Paper Heart isn’t terribly deep, but it’s disarmingly sweet, and the various comic actors always work hard to keep things lively. Some of the more marginal real-life participants help, notably an Elvis impersonator and a bar full of bikers who declare their love for one another.