The kindest thing to say about Paper Heart—a new semi-pseudo-documentary starring musician/comedian/actress Charlyne Yi—is that it seldom gets worse than its opening moments. Standing on the Las Vegas strip with a microphone, Yi asks passersby if they believe in true love, sometimes barely getting the words out between giggles. She laughs too loudly at their responses and smiles moonily between interviews, mugging for the camera as if fearing it will go away.
No worry there. It’s Yi’s movie, after all, necessitated by an alleged crisis over her inability to love. Sort of. Co-scripted and directed by Nicholas Jasenovec—played in the film by actor Jake M. Johnson—it mixes unscripted segments in which Yi interviews famous friends from her film roles and stand-up career (Seth Rogen, Demetri Martin, etc.) and apparent strangers across America on the subject of true love, occasionally recreating their stories with puppets and miniature sets. A subplot quickly swallows the movie with the introduction of Michael Cera. Here, he plays the part of Michael Cera, a young actor who falls in love with Yi.
It’s a clever, though precious, setup for a movie. So why does so much of it feel like soft torture? Some of the blame goes to Yi’s performance. Her childlike bubbliness plays winningly a few minutes at a time, but turns toxic over long stretches. It also can’t bend too far. Yi looks at home goofing with a bunch of kids on a playground, but lost in scenes requiring her to emote; it’s like asking viewers to feel Sonic The Hedgehog’s pain. And Paper Heart’s inability to sell its central conceit does it in. A fine line divides “artificial” from “phony,” and the film never finds the right side of that line. Every beat of Yi’s manufactured crisis of faith feels as pre-programmed in its own way as a Michael Bay movie. Some of the interview segments breathe a bit, but the cutesy vignettes, ripped-from-home-movies love story, and goofing-for-the-camera padding add up to nothing but annoyance. This isn’t a movie. It’s a MySpace page.