Finally the hipsters have gone full circle and consumed themselves like an ouroborus recycled from an old Pac-Man t-shirt. Charlyne Yi and her director Nicholas Jasenovec (Jake Johnson) have created a hybrid documentary-romcom. It acts as a deconstructionist-slacker Juno without ever once making fun of the subject matter: love. The notion of love and relationships are stripped down to the barebones remnants of a love story. Normally, you’d expect the tight sweater and hoodie crowd to make some snorting smirk towards the old fashioned notion of old people in love. However, much like Charlyne Yi herself, what comes out is something adorable and kinda sweet. However, also much like Charlyne Yi herself, what also comes out is something awkward and uncomfortable and half-assed. Paper Heart is a sloppily glued cardboard and magazine cutout valentine someone gives you on the fourth of October. It’s strange and lovely and lazy, and essentially rises and falls based on your personal feelings toward Charlyne Yi and Michael Cera. I sorta-kinda like them, so I sorta-kinda liked this.
Conceptually, the idea is Charlyne Yi and her pal/director Nick are going around doing interviews for a documentary about love. The premise is that Charlyne doesn’t believe in love, so she goes around the country talking to all manner of folks about what love means to them. It’s the farthest thing from a mockumentary, because even though Yi’s a comedian and supposedly has no belief or faith in the concept she’s doing an interview on, she still respects her subjects and allows them to tell their stories. It’s far more effective than having some cynical douchebag spout the statistics on the divorce rate, then finding the shittiest, craziest assholes available so he can make snide comments about them while pining for a transvestite conservative, right, Bill Maher? Yi even interviews a divorcee, a divorce judge married to a family court lawyer, and biologists and chemists trying to get them to break it down into biochemical processes and how awful love and marriage can be. But what comes out of it are really sweet love stories. Now sure, the entire point of the movie is that Charlyne secretly does believe in love, so maybe that’s the direction we’re supposed to go. It’s like Borat, but this time the dangerous rednecks are talking about how they fell in love.
Interspersed between all this is the alleged burgeoning relationship between Charlyne Yi and Michael Cera, who she “meets” at a party. I’m pretty sure all the Noises Off moments behind the cameras and the entire set-up and relationship between Cera and Yi are entirely manufactured. That doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. It still manages to craft a very sweet and awkward relationship in the harsh glare of the Klieg lights and digicam. It actually works as a twofold commentary: one, on the nature of what it means for Charlyne’s relationship, and two, the nature of the celebrity relationship. Charlyne slowly, painfully, awkwardly, resistantly finds herself falling in love with Michael. The hard part to figure out is whether or not it’s real. And that’s the sort of magical self-referential existential question we all ask in a relationship: is this real or is this just me pretending I’m in love because that is what’s expected of me. Yi and Johnson just use the meta-concept of the documentary to spin things around.
But are you going to like it? Well, that depends on how you feel about Charlyne Yi and Michael Cera. Jake Johnson as Nick is so good at his role as the friend/director you just accept him full bore. Cera plays the version of Cera we always see, the aw-shucks, shuffling dork. The closest he’s ever come to natural is when he does the “Clark and Michael Show” with Clark Duke. I respect Cera, but he’s been overexposed. I’m really furious he’s been miscast in his next two projects: Scott Pilgrim and Youth In Revolt. So for me, sure, the kid’s sweet and funny and nerdy, but if he falls in love or gets his heart broken, I’m not going to cry over spilled milquetoast. Juno did it once, and did it best. I wish Cera’s Paulie would have stayed on the stoop playing guitar forever.
Now, Charlyne Yi does a brand of stand-up comedy that should be deemed awkward deadpan or dead deadpan. Awkward comes up a billion times in this review, but that pretty much characterizes Yi. She’s like a muppet: a loud laugh, a very stilted delivery, and much of her humor relies on her staring around silently and then grinning and making a sudden shocking laugh. There’s a moment where she and Seth Rogen are talking on a bench and they both start laughing. It makes me never want to tell a joke ever again. And not just because I don’t want them to laugh in front of me. I don’t want to tell jokes to anyone at all because Yi and Rogen might accidentally overhear the joke and start laughing. Then I would be indirectly responsible for subjecting someone else to those laughs.
I saw Yi do her one woman show “Charlyne Yi and Me” at the Upright Citizens Brigade. Her humor is unoffensive, mostly making light of weird prop set-ups and quirky situations. It reminds me an awful lot of when Paul Reubens did pre-kiddie show, pre-masturbation-oops Pee-Wee Herman. She calls up an audience member on stage to have a “date.” When they go to dinner, the waiter brings them two foil-wrapped cobs of corn. And that’s the joke. Or she comes out claiming she’s wearing a wig, then laughs at the audience for thinking her hair is real. She proceeds to pull off a wig. To reveal her exact same real hairstyle. I laugh at her stuff, sometimes, but most of the time it’s like Andy Kaufman without the anger.
Paper Heart is like watching a grade school recital. It’s adorable, simple, and sweet, but really if you were judging it based on a real romcom or documentary, you’d tear it apart like David Sedaris in Holidays on Ice. It’s thoughtful and not cruel, which is somewhat refreshing. Like Yi herself, it’s got so much potential, but it’s just more content with not trying really hard or being anything other than what it is.
Brian Prisco is a bitter little man stomping sour grapes into fine whine in the valleys of North Hollywood. He’s a screenwriter who’s never been professionally produced, an actor who’s never joined a guild, and a director who made one bad film. He’s one waiter apron away from a cliche, and he’s available for children’s parties. You can tell him how much you hate him at priscogospel at hotmail dot com.