Your enjoyment of this twee mockumentary may rest on how endearing you find its two lead actors: Charlyne Yi, the comedian last seen baked out of her brain in “Knocked Up,” and Michael Cera, the awkward, earnest actor building a considerable career playing the kind of guys you wouldn’t mind letting your daughter date. They may or may not be an off-screen couple (it’s confusing), but they are certainly an on-screen couple, playing a fictitious version of themselves: Two 20-somethings prone to quirk and hoodies, who meet while Yi is filming a documentary about the possibility of love. He courts her over sandwiches and delivery pizzas as the cameras roll. She writes a song for him on her acoustic guitar called “You Smell Like Christmas.” They don’t knock back Jagermeister shots. Nobody winds up naked in a hot tub, ever. It’s all giggle-snorts and spring water drunk from wine glasses and awkward goodbyes. It’s sweet but, as my companion said when we left the theater: Don’t you kind of miss the days when kids just got drunk and had sex?
The movie begins with the premise that Charlyne — who co-wrote “Paper Heart” with her friend, director Nicholas Jasenovec (played by Jake Johnson) — does not believe in love. Not the fairy-tale kind of love, anyway, and though she does not say so, you get the sense that coming of age in the era of “The Bachelor” and the trashy dating shows of MTV and VH1 — where romance is measured in pole dances and diamond rings — didn’t do much to bolster her faith in enduring coupledom. Armed with her skepticism and a small camera crew she starts filming a documentary in which she interviews real people about their ideas on love, from man-on-the-street-style exchanges in New York to sit-downs with comedian pals like Seth Rogen and Demetri Martin, the latter of whom offers the terrific deadpan: “You’ve never been in love. Is it because you’re not lovable?”
With her unfashionable glasses and one-of-the-dudes goofiness, Yi is an appealing heroine, even if she is a somewhat uncomfortable interviewer, seeming to be perpetually at a loss for her next question. She’s not a quippy, charismatic performer; if anything, her shtick seems to be that she has no shtick, and so we get a lot of shots of Yi holding a microphone, shoulders slumped, her forehead twitchy with self-consciousness. What little we see of her stand-up comedy act makes clear that she likes messing with our expectations; she comes onstage in a drab black wig, tells the audience that surely they don’t think that’s her real hair, and then takes off the wig to reveal her real hair, which is almost identical. (The whole movie has a similar “Is this real?” stuntiness.) Yi gets comedic mileage out of being an un-movie star, the anti-Lohan, with her hair pulled back carelessly in a low ponytail and her giant, homely cardigans that swallow her frame. At one point, she shuffles out in a wedding dress as part of a prank and you can see for the first time what a lovely figure she has. But in an era of visible thongs and celebrity beav-flashing and middle-schoolers wearing miracle bras, a giant cardigan actually seems like a deeply rational act.
Eventually Yi sets out on a road trip across America that takes her to the kitschy chapels of Vegas and the playgrounds of Atlanta (“What’s a perfect date?” one child is asked. The reply: “Go to Applebee’s and get them some hot wings!”) and a divorce court in Amarillo, Texas, where a charming husband and wife work side by side while couples try to destroy each other every day. Once in a while, an interview subject will offer some tale of genuine romantic epiphany — one man falls into a river and is surprised by the face he sees as he thinks he’s going to die — but it’s at just these fragile moments that the camera cuts away to puppet reenactments, a truly unforgivable and distracting bit of whimsy. With their handmade, ultra-low-tech toddler aesthetic, they’re meant to be charming, of course — a sprinkling of magical Michel Gondry make-believe. But it comes off more like a child interrupting a discussion every time it gets too serious to show you her gymnastics routine. Your life was almost torn asunder? Yes, but I can do a one-handed cartwheel!
Into the midst of all this “real” talk about love, “Paper Heart” flings a fictional story line about a (maybe realish) romance between Yi and Cera. The two meet at a house party and begin to date, in that occasionally darling, occasionally irritating way. (The film won a screenwriting award at Sundance, which did make me wonder if it was a slow year.) In a typical discussion, the pair bicker about whether a BLT ordered without bacon and with pickles and cheese is still a BLT. (Commenters: Take it away!) If I were sitting at the table with them, this kind of cutesy banter might be amusing. As a chunk of movie dialogue, I kept thinking: What is this, YouTube?
Cera has been one of my favorite young actors ever since he played George-Michael Bluth in “Arrested Development.” His effortless ability to convey the agonies of adolescence can elicit shockwaves of cringe and compassion. Roles in films like “Juno” and “Superbad” and the sweet, if slight, “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” solidified his role as nice guy who doesn’t necessarily finish last. Some complain that Cera always plays the same character — silly, since Hollywood was built on actors like Cary Grant and Clark Gable. I don’t give a shit if Michael Cera can do a Cockney accent. Let Daniel Day-Lewis morph himself into a tree frog and take home the Oscar; I’m happy to watch somebody, anybody remind me what it was like to be 13, or 15, or 18, by virtue of seeming to be very much like himself. (And, by the way, I have no idea what the real Michael Cera is like. For all I know, he kills puppies, screws Courtney Love and dangles a heroin syringe from his inner thigh at all time.) For me, the real concern is that he doesn’t appear to be aging. He remains as sexless and earnestly boyish and unaware at 21 as he was at 14. Like Yi, he appears most comfortable in the nonthreatening, cutesy confines of childhood — horsing around on the beach, playing Tinkertoy instruments (the pair wrote the original score as well). And while there’s nothing inherently objectionable about that, it does make me fear for his future as a romantic lead.
Cera’s performance in “Paper Heart” is fine, if a bit winkingly self-conscious. (“Is this going to be quirky?” he asks Nick. “Cause that’s what America needs. More quirk.”) But the romantic plotline isn’t surprising or compelling. The couple is compromised by the presence of cameras, one wants a commitment from the other, there are fights off-camera and suddenly this alt-love story has veered into something entirely conventional. By the time the director excitedly announces the crew will be going to Paris, I felt like I was watching “The Real World” starring readers of McSweeneys.
At times, the relentless preciousness, the ironic distance, the posture of “We’re just adorably like this” gets to be a little too much. Even Yi’s age has become the subject of debate — is she 23, as most articles state, or is she 32, as her MySpace page claims? How much of this is a put-on? And if it isn’t, how much of this just gets old? But I can’t find it in my heart to be too cranky about a film made in opposition to the exhausting, youthful bump and hump of teen shows like “Gossip Girl” and “NYC Prep.” It’s kind of refreshing to see two young people who would like to construct their world, however clumsily, with paper — rather than plastic.