Paper Heart… Paper Thin…
Apparently, since his youthful debut in Arrested Development (go watch it), Michael Cera has become loathed by some of the more cynical corners of the internet as the “hipster du jour”. I’m much more forgiving of the limited range of roles he’s been cast in, since I’ve tended to like the films themselves. That said, Paper Heart might be my breaking point as far as that fandom goes.
Paper Heart is a pseudo-documentary (for reasons passing understanding I dislike the “mockumentary” elision) about Charlyne Yi, star and co-writer of the film, searching for the meaning of love, something she claims not to be able to understand or feel. It’s also, in terms of prospective quality, that most moveable of beasts, a film about making a film. Jake Johnson plays the director of the film Nick Jasenovec who’s also the co-writer and director-actual and, since he’s neither of the leads and a less prominent actor than Michael Cera, he’s the one it falls to to really sell the story as genuine.
The film is sweet, occasionally bordering a little on the twee, but the only really moving moments are the interviews about real people’s experiences. Whilst the presence of these, filmed in what looks like a fair number of states, makes Charlyne’s story more believable and adds a useful blurring to the real and scripted sections it also highlights the relative lightness of the main story. Of course if it’s all fake I look like a credulous fool, or maybe just a trusting and sensitive naïf… Either way my critical currency’s through the floor, I guess.
Some of the stories the interviewees share are illustrated in crude cardboard puppetry, part of the accomplished but deliberately makeshift and naïve aesthetic of both the art direction and the score. They provide some visual colour and variety and add a surprising amount of gentleness, romance and even pathos to some of the narrations. Except where it’s used to tie-up the film, in which instance it’s pure exuberance, explosions and action story-telling. The soundtrack and score are mostly composed by Michael Cera, Charlyne Yi and follow a similar pattern, quite simple but surprisingly effective.
My problem is the driving narrative of the film, it’s very slight both in terms of affect and event. When presented with a character who says they don’t understand or believe in love, at least for themselves, the dramatic necessity is that this will almost certainly not be the case at the end of the story. Since you know he’s coming up, Michael Cera’s the obvious love-interest, since any left-field twist or surprise would break the format. As such there’s little tension in their tentative friendship and even more hesitant romance, which can feel very formulaic whilst not seeming overly scripted. Even the less-than-effusive denouement seems to affirm a new belief in love, if not the appellation. (appalachian/appellation: most discrete homonyms possible)
No-one’s that any of the cast are bad in any way: Charlyne Yi’s natural nervousness and almost savant excitability are endearing and she carries the later sadnesses of the story easily, proving once again that for unexpected acting chops you can generally rely on a comedian. Her warmth and oddness make up for a multitude of sins and stop her nearly total presence from dragging, as can be a problem in film with such a single character focus. Michael Cera’s good, even if in playing some version of himself you can see the core elements of every role he’s ever played with their more comedic and dramatic eccentricities smoothed out. This really isn’t a film for people who loath Michael Cera, though fans might find the relative familiarity of the part he plays a little disappointing too. Jake Johnson has the stand-out part, managing to be encouraging and warm to Charlyne’s character whilst allowing directorial considerations to colour his kindnesses without making him seem unsympathetic.
It’s clearly a project that everyone involved in was quite enthusiastic about, all the friends of those involved are pitching in, with cameos by David Krumholtz, Demetri Martin, Martin Starr and others providing some comedy pedigree to complement the vox pop interviews. The script and direction are also well-handled, pushing the idea that this is somewhere closer to cinéma vérité than it really is and maintaining the illusion without seeming forced or overly staged. Even when you’re aware of its true provenance it becomes easy to forget that behind Jake Johnson’s interjections and manifold frustrations there is a real Nick Jasenovac directing the whole thing.
Paper Heart is a film of almosts and maybes, warm, funny and touching in places, but never enough to make it essential, or particularly worthy of tracking down. It would fill an idle weekend afternoon as the best choice while channel-hopping, or a lazy half-date with someone a bit earnestly fringe, but I doubt it would ever be screened on TV. And your weird date’s already seen it. It raises smiles, but never laughs. It makes you happy, but not enough. It sells me on the idea of Charlyne Yi’s stand-up more than anything, but I’m unlikely to fly to America for the opportunity to see her perform live. You might have guessed by now, but I wanted to like this film a lot more than I could.