Paper Heart was one of my most anticipated films going into Sundance. A quasi-documentary with meta elements, It’s definitely not a mockumentary because some of the interviews and situations are very real. In a few ways Paper Heart is a great companion piece to Mark Webb’s 500 Days of Summer, which is also being shown at the Sundance Film Festival.
Comedian/actress Charlyne Yi has never been in love and is not even sure if she is capable of loving someone. And the concept of the documentary is born, as Yi goes on an across country journey to try to further understand the concept of love. Along the way she interviews married couples, newly weds, divorcees, a gay couple, a romance novelist, scientists, a married judge and lawyer, a psychic, a group of young children, and even some of her friends – Seth Rogen, Demetri Martain and more. And Li also meets real-life boyfriend Michael Cera, playing himself, and begins to develop a relationship that may or may not lead to true love. Will Charlyne be transformed into a true believer? The answer is much more complicated than what you might expect.
The film is also intercut with stories of true love told by real life couples that Charlyne meets along her journey, cleverly told through handcrafted paper puppets and dioramas. Charlyne’s child-like nervous personality is infectious, and it’s hard not to like her (although after the screening I was surprised to find a couple critics that just didn’t get her new-age quirky personality based comedy). The non scripted interviews sometimes come off as uninteresting compared to the scripted/improved sequences which revolve around Li’s relationship with Cera and growing friendship with director Nicholas Jasenovec (played on film by actor Jake Johnson). The film ramps up as Cera grows annoyed that he can’t see Yi in private without the cameras recording and the documentary begins to become more and more self aware.
/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10
I hate to go into spoilers, but I really want to discuss the film’s ending in detail as it appears that many people I have talked to have missed the real point of the film’s ending, and in affect, the real underlying story of the film. I advise not reading further if you have yet to see the movie.
The film ends with Charlyne going to Cera’s Toronto home to talk it out. The cameras and sound crew are left outside, and the on screen director character is told that they were still recording audio from Li’s wireless mic. Nicholas reluctantly instructs the crew to stop recording, and the film cuts to black… the end. A lot of people I have spoken with didn’t not get the significance of this ending, believing that it was just a way to leave on an open ended note of hope. But the film is actually a lot more clever than you would believe at the surface. Charlyne’s relationship with Michael and the possibility of love blooming is an A-story to distract you from the B-story arc of the film — that being Charlyne’s relationship with the on screen director Nicholas.
The film starts off as a selfish business relationship, and slowly Nicholas and Charlyne develop a friendship. It is done so subtly that you don’t even pay notice to it as it’s happening. By the end of the film, both Charlyne and Nicholas know each other in the way only good friends do. Nicholas even makes a comment to that affect in Paris (“I Know You”).
And remember back to Charlyne’s interview with the romance novelist, the one who reveals one of the key bits of the story structure of of the genre — that the lead character must sacrifice something huge as a way to demonstrate his or her love. Nicholas makes the sacrifice at the end of the film — the sarifice to essentially give up on the documentary so that Charlyne might have a chance to be happy. That act is the button for the film, the conclusion of the director’s storyarc, where he goes from looking at Charlyne as a documentary subject to caring about her as only a friend can. And while the love of friendship is not the traditional romance-based feelings that we usually think of when we hear the word, it is just as powerful.