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Paper Heart, a maddeningly meta blend of documentary and fiction, begs you to admire how precious it is. Isn’t it adorable when its tiny, unfussy young star Charlyne Yi ends every line with a nervous laugh? Don’t you just love the crude sock puppets and marionettes Yi occasionally trots out? And how cute are the grade-schoolers at an Atlanta playground, sharing their ideas about romance?
OK, that last part is pretty amusing, particularly when a boy with the demeanor and side-part of an accountant speaks at length about how a good date would include dinner at a seafood restaurant. But overall this Sundance darling screams “quirk” while Yi hems and haws and giggles maniacally. The 23-year-old Los Angeles–based comedian not only doesn’t believe in true love—she suspects she’s incapable of loving anyone at all. So she travels the country—talking to biology professors, divorce lawyers, and others—in search of hope, fluctuating between acceptance of her lovelessness and the fear that she’s somehow abnormal.
Yi brings along a camera crew and director to help shape her search into a documentary. So we often see her interacting with director Nicholas Jasenovec—except that he’s played by actor Jake M. Johnson. And about midway through the doc, she meets and starts a tentative relationship with Michael Cera—except Yi has been adamant while promoting the film that the two never really dated.
When Cera first meets “Nick” at a party, he asks what kind of movie it’s going to be: “Is it going to be funny? Romantic? Quirky?” Nick says yes to all three, prompting Cera’s sarcastic response, “Perfect. It’s just what America needs.” Filmgoers who have had their share of strenuously unconventional quasi-indies will likely agree. Even setting aside the is-it-real-or-is-it-Memorex conceit, Yi grates. She’s already established her comedy chops—she had a small role in Knocked Up, and you can watch her and Channing Tatum do a hilarious re-creation of a Dirty Dancing scene on MSN’s Cinemash site—but here she’s awkward and shy in a pay-attention-to-me! way. Like wearing her ever-present hoodie up even while inside. Or allowing a long silence to precede her stammered, IDK! contributions to a simple conversation. Whether this personality is true or fake, Yi comes off like a tween instead of a 20-something.
Paper Heart does offer some engaging moments. Cera, as everywhere, is a highlight, his low-key humor and general likeability cutting through the posturing. (And he sometimes looks at Yi so sweetly, it’s easy to imagine they were a real couple.) It’s also interesting to hear people from all walks of life talk about love, from longtime couples sharing how they met to regulars at a biker bar saying that the camaraderie they find there is stronger than family or romantic bonds. And though Yi’s puppetry throughout the film is usually cloying, a dramatization that closes the movie is by far the best scene—let’s just say it involves motorcycles, cops, an explosion, and a primal scream launched into the sky. As to what’s real and what’s staged, though? The very concept is too annoying to make you care.