Monday, August 31, 2009

Bonus review: "Paper Heart"

Charlyne Yi is one of the those people you're probably vaguely aware of. She's a young (23) stand-up comedienne who's appeared in small parts in a few movies and TV shows, including as "one of the guys" in "Knocked Up." She's small, cute but disheveled, with a penchant for wearing pulled-up hoodies and flyaway hair drooping over her thick black-framed glasses.

Most distinctive is her way of talking, which comes out in a rushed stammer, like the very act of conversing is mortally embarrassing for her. If you've seen any of her stand-up, you know that the painfully shy persona is part of her act. Similarly, her first major film role in the quasi-documentary "Paper Heart" leaves us unsure where truth ends and play-acting begins.

It's difficult to say if "Paper Heart" should be called a mockumentary. Those films, like "Spinal Tap," feature made-up characters and events in order to spoof a particular slice of society. But "Paper Heart" is full of real people, using their real names.

Yi obviously uses her own moniker and persona. The film is about her belief that there's no such thing as love, or at least that she is incapable of it. Perhaps not surprisingly, early in the filming process she stumbles backward into a relationship with Michael Cera, the actor, using his own name and (we think) persona. Complicating matters further, we learn that Cera and Yi were once in a relationship in real life -- although, since this film purports (at least on the surface) to be their real lives, we don't know if what we're seeing is the actual substance of their romance, or some bastardized version served up for the movie.

If I were to guess, I'd bet on the latter. The notion that this whole piece is not a document of reality but an opportunity for clever comedy is further bolstered by the fact that the director of the film, Nicolas Jasenovec, is the third principle character in "Paper Heart" -- but he's played by an actor, Jake M. Johnson.

Most of the movie consists of Yi and Jasenovec (or his on-screen doppelganger, at least) traveling around the country, talking to people about love. There are a number of interviews with older couples who have been together for 30, 40, 50 years or more, and they share the stories of their meeting and romance.

One of the interviews is with a divorce court judge in Texas, with his wife who is an attorney he met on the job, who admits that he pressured his wife's boss to make her go out with him or lose her job. Yi conducts the interview in the courtroom, with the judge on his seat (but wearing a leather jacket instead of his robes) and his wife in the witness chair. This is where the film is at it's best, where we're stuck in this zone that's vaguely icky and uncomfortable, but also with heart-warming notes; the strange combination ends up inducing chuckles at the absurdity of it.

But most of the movie is concentrated on Yi and her relationships with Cera and the director, and at times it gets rather slow and draggy. I have to admit that part of my frustration with these sections was centered on Yi herself -- like Woody Allen, her on-screen shtick gets old in large servings. I never really connected to her, whether she's playing a character or herself, because either way it felt like a put-on. At least the movie didn't wander into obvious territory, with the director realizing that he's in love with his subject.

The live-action scenes are interspersed with nifty animated segments using crude cut-out figures and dioramas, with Yi as the puppeteer. The final one of these, which closes the film, is quite funny without really adding up to much. That's pretty much how I feel about the whole of "Paper Heart."

2.5 stars

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