You could think of “Paper Heart” as sort of a benevolent version of the Sacha Baron Cohen model, with its mixture of documentary and fiction. Only instead of providing raunchy satire or exposing people’s prejudices, it seems all Charlyne Yi wants to do is sweetly entertain.
The writer, actress and standup comic travels the country interviewing regular people about being in love, a phenomenon that has eluded her in her early 20s. She goes to a biker bar in Oklahoma City, a playground in Atlanta and everywhere in between. She also gleans insight from friends, including her “Knocked Up” co-stars Seth Rogen and Martin Starr.
At the same time, Yi (playing a version of herself) finds that she’s unexpectedly falling for a new guy she’s met named Michael (Michael Cera, playing a version of himself). They court at hipster hangouts in Hollywood — Cera in a wide array of hoodies, Yi in her messy ponytail and dark-rimmed glasses — play music for each other and hold hands in the grocery store while shopping for frozen pizza.
This is the made-up subplot. In real life, Yi and Cera are close pals; they even co-wrote the score for “Paper Heart” together. It was rumored that they’d been dating and recently broke up, though Yi now says they’ve always been just friends. Again, the lines get blurrier.
Meanwhile, the “director” of Yi’s documentary, Nick Jasenovec, is played by actor Jake Johnson; the real Jasenovec is the real director of “Paper Heart,” making his feature debut.
Confused? Just go with it.
Sure, it might be a little too twee for its own good, with its use of intentionally crude puppets to recreate the love stories Yi’s interview subjects share with her. She wanted to find a unique, whimsical way to depict these tales, rather than just showing talking heads, but the figures and sets she and her dad fashioned are just too self-consciously cute.
Nevertheless, “Paper Heart” is a charming little movie based on a clever concept that will leave you with a genuinely positive feeling afterward.
Yi is a nerd goddess — goofy, tomboyish, unapologetically awkward with an off-kilter sense of humor — and the fact that she’s so self-deprecating and seems so earnest in her quest to find the meaning of true love makes her pretty hard to resist. Regardless of the setting or the person she’s interviewing, she never condescends, she always seems open to hearing what people have to say and even willing to make herself vulnerable.
“Paper Heart” becomes a little too conventional when it starts focusing on how the constant documentary cameras are taking a toll on Yi and Cera’s relationship, as if they were reality TV stars under a microscope. (“Do you need to take my microphone?” he turns and asks the crew at the end of one of their dates.) It’s really a rather tired complaint to be making, even in a semi-fictional setting.
But for the most part, “Paper Heart” is way more innovative than the formulaic romantic comedies that all too often trek through the multiplex, and a much-needed refreshing change.
“Paper Heart,” an Overture Films release, is rated PG-13 for some language. Running time: 89 minutes. Three stars out of four.