Charlyne Yi is the kind of girl you'd like to be friends with, meet for dinner on the weekend and hear her observations on LA life. She is not, however, the kind of girl to follow around with a camera. Nor, despite my affection, would this reviewer turn up on her doorstep one day and stalk her for several months with said camera in the hope that such a tactic might secure that regular weekend meet-up and a lifelong friendship. But Paper Heart does just that; it's a tireless stalker of a movie.
Yi has a one-woman show involving magic, puppets and audience participation games. She is an onstage performer and has appeared with small parts in movies like Knocked Up and Cloverfield. She's interesting, but the director, and the producers, clearly thought this meant they could film her life and every bit of it would make fascinating viewing. They were wrong. Instead, they have plenty of footage of a disgruntled and overwhelmed Yi, a put out Michael Cera reacting to being dragged into a film because he happens to get along with Yi and then montages, lots of montages, with twee little soundtracks to gloss over the fact that there are few good scenes. There are some, but if you put a camera on anyone for long enough, day and night, you will eventually get something funny to use.
This is a faux documentary - on the poster "documentary" is crossed out and replaced with "story" - but it seems very unlikely that Cera is acting annoyed, or Yi is acting uncomfortable, mostly because these performances make for such an awkward movie. Why would they deliberately make a film like this? It's a film with more difficult pauses than jokes, more tedium than insight. In fact, it seems more likely that the faux-ness of this documentary was originally limited to the one actor playing the part of the director, until later on when the director figured a fashionable genre tag like "pseudo-documentary" would take the film further than it truly deserved.
Cera probably did meet Yi at her show and liked her, quite naturally, but then being a nice guy got maneuvered into the movie to add some celebrity cache. We are told Yi doesn't believe in love and this is packaged up into a psychological disorder that demands a cross-country road trip to be cured. It is all too obvious that Yi is mentally stable and either just too young to be worrying about a boyfriend, or too smart to get involved with any of the young men she knows - musicians, actors, LA kids - and risks fading into their background. As she says of Cera, "I want to be his girlfriend, but I don't want to be the girlfriend. Nobody remembers the girlfriend." See, utterly sane.
Romantic comedies show a heightened reality. Relationships are magnified, the emotions and events compressed into 90 minutes of comedy and drama finished off by a happy ending. A real romance, which we assume we see in Paper Heart, cannot survive the necessary stretching for the big screen. Reality can really ring hollow when it's played that loud. Cera is a great actor, but he isn't a star. He has made a career out of his very ordinariness. Yi is a talented performer and an interesting person - but private. Paper Heart isn't a romantic comedy. No, it's a romantic tragedy. As we watch their relationship unfold, we are implicated in its failure. We watch it grow only to kill it.
Paper Heart ★✩✩✩✩
Starring: Charlyne Yi, Michael Cera, Jake M Johnson. Director: Nicholas Jasenovic. Written by: Nicholas Jasenovic, Charlyne Yi. PG13