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Movie Review

Paper Heart is a movie about love. It's appropriate, then, that its structure feels like first love itself: sweet, awkward and incredibly perplexing.

This is a somewhat scripted movie about an unscripted documentary. Or more precisely, about the making of a documentary. Sort of. Comedian Charlyne Yi plays herself traveling around the country asking folks about love. Her interviewees range from biologists to romance writers, from neighborhood kids to old married couples, from divorce court judges to Elvis impersonators.

Some of that doesn't seem to be scripted. But this part is: While making her doc, Charlyne meets Michael Cera (played by Michael Cera) and falls—well, if not head over heels, at least head over shoulders for the guy. Their relationship is complicated by the fact that the documentary crew—led by Paper Heart director Nicholas Jasenovec (who is not actually played by Nicholas Jasenovec)—is watching their every move.

Think of all of this as a piece of performance art—an ever-so-clever postmodern satire on the nature of reality in the digital age. Odd, isn't it, that with all the texting and tweeting and blogging and reality showing we're all engaged with these days, "reality" itself is as elusive as ever. Paper Heart takes aim at our 21st century fixation on ourselves and explores how ever-present documentary crews, rather than capturing reality, skew it.

Indeed, even this bit of satire bled into real life: Charlyne and Michael, we now know, have always been "just friends," but the film's makers were intentionally coy about whether there was something more between the onscreen couple—sparking strange tabloid rumors. Star confidently exclaimed at one point that Michael had broken up with Charlyne to date other women.

"Charlyne is beyond sad," an unnamed source told the supermarket staple. "And the break up is so much harder because she'll have to see him on tour."

Could that be true?!

Enter the puppets. Yes, the puppets. Charlyne's real-life interview subjects narrate critical moments in their relationships as handmade paper figurines mimic the action onscreen.

Confused yet? Well, if you've ever been in love, you know the feeling.


Positive Elements

As proudly postmodern as this film is, it's also perhaps cinema's first post-postmodern romance. Though Charlyne launches the film as a cynic, and there are many ironic flourishes throughout, its heart, paper though it may be, is unflinching in its sincerity.

Because while Charlyne is skeptical, her interviewees are not. In the affairs of men and maids, these folks are true believers, and many of them walk the talk.

Charlyne interviews a bevy of couples who've been married for 50 years—and still seem as in love with each other as the day they first met. "If you really love 'em, it gets better all the time," says one. The first 50 years felt just like two or three, says another. Meanwhile, members of a biker gang boisterously proclaims that familial, sacrificial, platonic love is superior to all other forms. A romance novelist says her readers know if characters are really in love when one makes a massive sacrifice for another. Even one of the biologists Charlyne talks with, who contends love is largely a product of evolution and our drive to reproduce, concludes his thoughts by saying, "Somehow, there's a little bit of magic to it, too."

Many interviewees opine that couples these days are too willing to chuck it all. "When I took those vows," laments a divorced man, "for me, it was for life." A happily married woman says that "we're not a very patient society," and that when things get rough, we're sadly more apt to "just give up."

Love manifests itself in less healthy ways here, as well. But let's be clear. Charlyne is on a quest for real, idyllic love—not infatuation, not sex. And most of the folks she talks with seem to understand that the ingredients that make love stick include mutual understanding, sacrifice, friendship and commitment.

Spiritual Content

When a biker offers Charlyne a chance to ride on the back of his Harley, he asks her if she knows any Catholic prayers. She says, as she climbs aboard, "Please, God, let me live."

A couple of interviewees wear conspicuous crosses around their necks. Charlyne and her director sit in on a wedding service presided over by a minister.

Charlyne visits a medium, who "reads" the comedian's fortune with faded Tarot cards.

Sexual Content

Michael Cera and Charlyne Yi have both acted for raunchmeister Judd Apatow (in Superbad and Knocked Up, respectively), so one might expect this joint effort to be a crass, graphic mess.

But Paper Heart's central love story is strangely sweet, almost innocent. It takes half the movie for the two "lovers" to hold hands, and their first (and only) shared kiss is an awkward smooch over a box of pizza. Walking down the street, they begin to talk about doing "the thing"—which proves to be simply running as fast as they can to get away from the television crew. They IM each other. They buy an accordion together. She writes a song that says Michael "smells like Christmas" and suggests (in the song) that he hold her tight. Neither of them talk about sex, and there's no intimation they ever engage in it.

This is not to say the film steers completely clear of the subject. There's talk of others making out. Charlyne interviews a homosexual couple who admit they had sex on their second date. "We're gay," says one, tongue-in-cheek. "That's what we do."

Some people talk about what attracted them to their significant others: One woman says that she ignored her future husband until the day he drove up in a Harley Davidson and tight blue jeans. Another says he first hit on his future wife when she still had a boyfriend ("If they're not married or engaged, they're fair game").

We see the exposed breast of a biology mannequin.

Violent Content

A kid on the playground gets smacked upside the head by a playmate. A biker tells Charlyne he has a love-hate relationship with his wife: "I love to beat her, and she hates the beatings," he says. "That's a joke."

Oh, and some of Charlyne's puppets engage in dangerous activities: One nearly drowns in a raging river. (We see his little paper face contorted in a hand-drawn scream.) Other puppets lead police on a high-speed, bullet-riddled chase. (We see the bullets float through the air on strings; one punctures a motorcycle gas tank whereupon an explosion sends puppets flying through the air.)

Crude or Profane Language

Two s-words. God's name is misused a half-dozen times. "H---," "b--tard" and "a--" make cameo appearances.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Nick pretends to smoke and actually smokes a cigarette. Several folks drink beer at a party. Michael asks Charlyne if she's high or still OK to drive, though there's no indication that either have taken anything that might make them high.

Charlyne says she once dated someone she thought was really mysterious, partly because of the dark circles under his eyes. "Then I realized he was on drugs," she adds.

Other Negative Elements

A few characters make light of marriage: One Las Vegas chapel proprietor tells a story of how a groom didn't know his soon-to-be bride's last name. Another chaplain remembers the time when a groom, as the ceremony got to the vows, flipped a coin before he said "I do."

A handful of elementary-age girls proclaim their undying love for R&B star Chris Brown.

Felonious puppets walk off into the sunset—with the puppet police's blessing.


"All of my ideas about love come from movies and fairy tales," Charlyne tells us. And Paper Heart, through its minimalist approach to the subject, helps illustrate how far apart the romance we see in film and the love we experience in life are.

Movies and fairy tales teach us that love is revealed in a kiss, or in the explosion of fireworks, or in a violin-laden background score. And some of the people who appear in this film show evidence that they believe it. One couple married 50 years encourage Charlyne to "wait for the lightning bolt," even as they acknowledge that love sometimes takes years to flourish. A newly married couple—still in high school and still in their wedding clothes—tell Charlyne that "you just gotta go with what feels right."

We all know the odds are stacked against that young couple. What "feels" right now doesn't always feel the same tomorrow or 20 years later, and lifelong relationships need to have more at their core. Charlyne seems to understand this better than most. And yet, she's still hoping for that bolt of lightning.

In the end, she imagines herself and Michael speeding down the highway on a Harley—two rebels sustained only by ... what? Charlyne admitted earlier that she's not in love with Michael, but perhaps, she thinks, they're still on the road searching for it. Life and love, she tells us, is all about risk, "and I, Charlyne Yi, am taking that risk!"

That ending, frankly, feels too pat, considering the complexities of the love stories she's learned about during her journey.

Sure, love is risky. Love is exciting. Love sometimes does hit us like a electrical blast. But it's more than that, too. Charlyne, on her sweet, disarming—confusing—cross-country search for it, comes close to finding the truth. But she doesn't go quite far enough.

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