Charlyne Yi was born a year after Foreigner had a huge hit with the song I Wanna Know What Love Is but I think hearing the power ballad in utero had a long lasting effect on her, which must have directly lead to the making of the pseudo documentary Paper Heart.
In the film Yi, a musician and comedian best known for small roles in Knocked Up and Semi Pro, sets out to discover the true meaning of love. She says she’s never been in love and isn’t sure if she’s capable, so to avoid becoming “a lonely old spinster” she hits the road, interviewing everyone from her famous friends (like Seth Rogen) to a Las Vegas Elvis who says he once married a couple even though he knew the groom didn’t know the bride’s last name. She talks to divorcees about the true meaning of love; scientists explain the chemistry of love; a biker describes the feeling as “thirty minutes on the back of a Harley” and a couple of now elderly childhood sweethearts say she’ll know when she’s in love because it’s like a lightening bolt. Along the way Yi meets someone she might be able to fall in love with, but will she feel that lightening bolt or not?
Paper Heart is a mix of real interviews—the man-on-the-street stuff is genuine—mixed with improv from Yi, Jake Johnson (who plays the on-screen version of the real life director of the film Nicolas Jasenovec) and love interest Michael Cera. That blend gives the movie an authentically spontaneous feel but even at a slight 88 minutes the story feels padded and occasionally too quirky for it’s own good, but, despite its shortcomings, it is a film that can laugh at itself. At one point Cera describes the film-within-a-film as “quirky” and then adds sarcastically, “That’s just what America needs.” It’s fun to see the star of the idiosyncratic Juno and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist having fun at his own expense.
As for Yi her awkward, geeky charm is an acquired taste and she her acting range spans A to A, but she and Cera are quite sweet together and their chemistry, especially as their relationship starts to bloom and then wilt, is the thing that makes the film compelling.
There are some very funny moments contained within—a little girl describing true love as “taking someone to Applebees for hot wings” is priceless in a Kids Say the Darndest Things kind of way—but the film really shines when it focuses on the nitty-gritty of the heart. When Yi admits to being afraid she’ll lose her identity if she becomes too involved with someone else the film thankfully loses some of its schticky edge and comes crashing down to earth, in a good way.
Couple that with some wonderfully evocative animation used to illustrate the real-life love stories from the real-life interview subjects and you end up with a film that (eventually) cuts the quirky in favor of real feelings.