Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Paper Heart

By Elise Nakhnikian

Paper Heart’s Charlyne Yi, the gawky stoner girlfriend from Knocked Up, is an odd duck. So tomboyish her best friend/producer calls her “Chuck” and so guilelessly geeky I can’t watch her without wondering if she has Asperger Syndrome, she’s hardly what you’d expect from the cowriter and star of a self-described “documentary about love.” But then, that’s kind of the point of this raggedly charming little movie.

Paper Heart hints at the variety and mystery of romance by letting regular people describe how they found love – or lost it. To get those stories, Yi zigzagged across the country with her cowriter and director Nicholas Jasenovec, a small crew, and two handheld cameras, stopping to interview a series of refreshingly direct, unglamorous people.

That’s just the outer layer of this thoughtfully constructed little film.

Excerpts from those interviews are folded into a fictional story about Yi herself – or, rather, a character played by Yi who shares her name and a lot of her characteristics. After declaring that she has never been in love and doesn’t think she ever will be, Yi decides to make a movie – the documentary we’re watching – with her best friend Jasenovec. If she talks to enough people about love, she figures, maybe she can find out what it is and why she hasn’t been able to experience it.

Shot with handheld cameras, natural-looking lighting, naturalistic acting, and impromptu-sounding dialogue, Paper Heart is a fiction film posing as a documentary. Jasenovec isn’t even Jasenovic: He’s played by actor Jake Johnson. The filmmakers are coy about what else isn’t real, but I’m pretty sure everything aside from the interviews was scripted. They have fun making us guess, though, throwing in fistfuls of red herrings like the party scene where actor Michael Cera asks “Will this be in the movie?” and is told “Probably not.”

Their movie within the movie also lets us watch a romance unfold instead of just hearing the process described, when Yi and Cera (who is playing himself, or someone a lot like himself) fall in love (or something a lot like love).

Hesitantly charming as always, Cera fakes sincerity and spontaneity so well you almost believe their romance, especially since gossip magazines have been speculating for years that Cera and Yi are in fact a couple. The two definitely have some kind of chemistry, with their rhyming sweatpants and hoodies. You root for them when they make a run for it, trying to escape the prying camera when the fictional Jasenovec documents their affair obsessively, insisting that it’s part of the story. And when they play music in a wordless montage, you can almost buy them as a nerdy version of the lovers in Once. Yi and Cera even composed songs for the soundtrack.

In the end, though, their affair feels about as hot as a Girl Scout picnic. The whole thing gets a little too self-consciously meta sometimes too, like when “Jasenovec” sends Yi to a psychic, to ask about her stalled affair with Cera, or when the director and his star go to Paris for what’s supposed to be her romantic ending with the leading man – and Cera doesn’t show up.

All those wheels within wheels would be spinning away without creating any friction, as distanced from love as Yi herself claims to be, if it weren’t for those disarmingly revealing real people. In one interview, a self-contained-looking divorcé mourns the loss of what he suspects was his one true love, showing himself to be unexpectedly vulnerable. In another, two elderly high school sweethearts ooze mutual appreciation decades after they met. A dryly funny family court judge and the lawyer he fell for when she argued cases in his court tag-team their story with great comic timing, and a gay man who was just looking for sex when he met his long-time partner talks about having found more than he bargained for.

The interviews are often staged in interesting settings – the divorcé is shooting pool in his basement – but Jasenovec and Yi don’t confine themselves to that footage. Instead, Yi often acts out the stories as people talk, using childishly crude puppets that she and her father made in their garage.

Like the rest of the movie, the puppets are deceptively sophisticated and sweetly entertaining. And every so often, they surprise you with a genuinely moving moment.

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