Paper Heart crumples between reel vs. real love

A partly real, partly staged documentary about a search for love

Charlyne Yi certainly looks lovable. In her glasses and hoodie, she has a youthful androgyny. The musician/actress has an infectious laugh and clearly maintains a playful approach to life and showbiz. You may remember the actress/musician from a small role as a giggly stoned girlfriend of one of Seth Rogen’s housemates in Knocked Up. Yi takes center stage in Paper Heart, a partly real, partly staged documentary about her search for the meaning of love. She approaches romance from an outsider's point of view, claiming she’ll never fall in love.

Yi and her documentary crew criss-cross the country interviewing different kinds of people about the nature of love, including a romance novelist, a Las Vegas wedding chapel Elvis, a psychic, Atlanta children on a playground, and a chemist who speaks about the emotion's physiological aspects. She also asks couples and single people to recount their own love stories, from acts of gallantry to near-death experiences, which Yi re-creates using cardboard puppets. These Science of Sleep-esque puppet shows could have been Paper Heart’s most cloying moments, but actually prove to be the film’s sweetest and most satisfying scenes.

Between her travels, Yi meets successful young actor Michael Cera at a party. They begin texting, playing guitar together, and then casually dating. Her collaborators decide to make the budding relationship part of the documentary, which threatens to alienate the couple. In real life, Cera and Yi were together for years before recently splitting up. They’re a charming pair, but it’s hard to tell if their occasional awkwardness is a real side effect of dating on camera, or just a sign of re-created encounters.

Authenticity issues undermine Paper Heart’s premise. The documentary’s director, Nicholas Jasenovec, is played by an actor (Jake M. Johnson) — how lame is that? It’s fun to see nice-guy actor Michael Cera get a little testy, but given that Paper Heart’s central conflict is probably staged, you have to question other aspects of the film. When Yi writes and sings a song for Cera called “You Smell Like Christmas,” she reveals a lot about her personality. One also wonders, though, if she truly feels like she lacks the capacity for romantic love, and if not, why the film spends so little time digging into her emotional history. She’s clearly a unique, highly creative person, but you end up wishing you’d watched Charlyne Yi’s stage show rather than her mockumentary valentine.