Netflix thinks he knows me. He’s always making these recommendations based on other films he’s known I’ve seen. “If you liked Gone With the Wind and you also liked One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest… well, heck, you’re gonna love this one!” There’s something inherently mechanical and artificial about any system that tries to guess whether or not you’ll like a film. Well, whatever the reason, somehow Paper Heart landed in my recommendations list. And I’m starting to think Netflix knows me better than I know myself.
Describing Paper Heart is a difficult task. The Netflix description had some word in it like “faux” or “mockumentary” that tipped me off to the fact that this wouldn’t be a completely sincere account of what was to come. It starts Charlyne Yi as herself. Who the hell is Charlyne Yi? Well, she plays this musician/comedian who doubts the sincerity of ‘love’ as a true feeling and decides to couple with a crew to shoot footage in search of a deeper definition. The real draw for most people is the presence of Michael Cera. Cera is an immediately recognizable actor for anyone who has been paying attention to the young semi-independent movie scene for the past three years. He’s probably best known for his work in Superbad and Juno and strangely here he plays… well, himself.
The film opens with Yi holding a microphone in Las Vegas and asking passers by about their definition and idea of love. While this may not have been the intent, the insincere reactions that the passers by give to Yi sets her up to be a sympathetic character. As you see her attempts to be taken seriously, you’d have to be heartless not to sympathize with. She’s a 19-year old female of Asian decent, but let’s just say that she doesn’t possess ‘conventional beauty’. After you spend a few moments with her, you sense that her mannerisms are quite odd – leaning heavily towards geeky or nerdy. The fact that she identifies herself as either a comedian or a musician is strange considering that she didn’t seem to take the music that seriously and her comedy even less so. All this said, I really grew to like Charlyne Yi. Her beauty manifested itself in her freeness of spirit. For me (as is the case with most people) a beautiful or ugly spirit drastically either enhances or detracts from your physical beauty anyway. I liked Yi’s personality so much that I’m hoping her role in the movie was close to her real life persona. It would be nice to think of how the world would be if there were more Charlyne Yi’s in it.
(It’s difficult to review this film without giving details about how it unfolds – so if you’ll trust me, I’ll try to give you a flavor for what hooked me without revealing the heart of the film. However, if you just want to see this thing, stop here and check it out.)
The film develops with Charlyne subtlety and repeatedly (but not begrudgingly) expressing how she probably won’t ever experience true love. To say she’s pessimistic about her love life is an understatement. There’s even a shot of her parents on film trying to uncover the mystery of her love life. To the viewer, it should be pretty obvious why she isn’t with a beau. She has a strange and almost ‘performance-actor’-ish kinda personality. As if she’s just kinda making it up as she’s going along in life. What makes her likeable in the film is the genuine feeling she gives when she smiles. Throughout the film, she finds small opportunities to create fun for herself. She’s not overly concerned with her appearance. (In fact, she’s not concerned with it in the least.) She strikes me as a person who would randomly utter the most unpredictable and strange comments. And it’s with this free-spirited approach that she and fellow filmmaker Nick Jasenovec set out to interview people about their definitions and ideas of love. The feeling that the mockumentary seems to give us initially is that there really isn’t any script or even a storyboard for how the film will build or conclude. They’re just kinda making it up. That is, until Michael Cera steps on the scene.
Anyone who’s seen the box cover can pretty much guess that there’s going to be some romantic encounter between Yi and Michael Cera. But the way that this unfolds has an elementary school/innocent kinda feel to it. This on-screen innocence is the very essence of the film. It’s refreshing to see two people connect and develop in the non-conventional way that these two do. After hearing Charlyne doubt herself, I found myself rooting for her to find love before the credits rolled. Knowing this was a mockumentary, I couldn’t wait. During the film, I cheated and peaked at imdb.com. I was curious about whether these two were ever really a couple and if so, were they still together. I won’t ruin the movie for the reader as I did for myself, but what I read on the message boards upset me immensely. There are more than a few ugly comments about Charlyne. Comments about her appearance. Comments about how the formula of the film is stale and has been done before. On all accounts, completely disagree. She strikes me as incredibly charming. And if the formula of the film is stale, perhaps I haven’t seen enough films lately, because it felt fresh to me.
I think the biggest draw for the film also turns out to also be one of the big potential pitfalls for viewers. Watching and knowing that Michael Cera stars in the film AS Michael Cera sets the viewer up for a certain experience and, in a way, the film delivers something different. I had this feeling going in that I was going to see some sort of documentary, but what I got turned out to be a bit better. I almost wonder if it might have worked better had they just removed the mockumentary part and let the actors star as different characters in a movie with the same plot. After giving it some consideration, I am sure that they went in the right direction because the crowning moment of the film (without spoilers, it’s when there is a bit of a rift between the filmmakers) turns out to be an incredible moment. It reminded me of the best moment in one of the final scenes of the British version of The Office when Tim and Dawn share a moment off-camera with the sound muted and your fairytale ending has just been crushed by reality.
Sadly, the ending of Paper Heart is incredibly tacked-on, unsatisfying, and betrays the entire spirit of the film. Going back to the genius that was the British version of The Office, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant knew that ending the second and final season with an unsatisfying moment wouldn’t be the most fulfilling thing for the viewer initially, but in that sense of emptiness, you realize that it is better to have loved and lost than to not have loved. (Of course they tied it up in a neat bow with the Christmas Special, but the sentiment still remains). In Paper Heart, they unimaginatively elect to take a path that is very untrue to the rhythm and pacing of the film and ultimately left me scratching my head. This film deserved a more well thought-out ending.
For any viewers that appreciate a good romantic comedy, this is one to see. It’s short at just under and hour and a half. And there are some genuinely moving moments here. But I think the best way to enjoy the film is to try to distance yourself as much as possible from the whole “is it real or is this faked” thing and just to focus on these characters. Also, I can understand how some people might be turned off by Charlyne. She has some ways that are somewhat juvenile. Her resume may say “singer” and “comedian”, but little in the film serves as evidence to support those titles. (…and if you watch the DVD, whatever you do – don’t watch the musical performances that she gives. Ugh.) But I must say that as the film moved on, I found her personality and her smile to be infectious. Anyone who watches this film and doesn’t sympathize with Charlyne probably has a heart made of paper. If you liked Once, in the words of Netflix, this one’s probably your cup of tea.