It’s often helpful to know what a movie is before you sit down to write a review. It’s just one of those things. With Paper Heart, it’s a bit more difficult than most.
Is this film a documentary? Is it a mock-umentary? Is it a hybrid? Entirely scripted? Entirely improvised? How much of it is based in real life? Did costars Michael Cera and Charlyne Yi actually date, or was their entire “relationship” staged as a sort of ultra-meta Andy Kaufman meets Cloverfield style gag? I’ve seen the movie twice now and I couldn’t really tell you – and I mean that as a compliment. More after the jump:
Paper Heart is a puzzle box of a movie. Staged like a documentary, the film tells the story of Yi who, accompanied by her director Nicholas Jasnovec, searches for proof of the existence of true love, a concept in which she does not believe. Along the way she interviews people who tell whimsical tales of different kinds of love (each of which are animated with paper cutouts and marionette work). Soon she meets Cera and the two begin an awkward romance.
Jasnovec, who clearly has a thing for Yi, pushes the Cera angle onto the story because he sees a chance to get an honest to god movie star in his little documentary, but Yi and Cera resist. The tension eventually threatens to tear the budding relationship apart and derail the documentary completely. And here’s where things get interesting — Yi is playing Yi and Cera is playing Cera, but Jasenovec is played by Jake M. Johnson. It appears that the on the street interviews are real, but most of the film is certainly scripted. Too, the interviews with stories about true love appear to be legit, even as the stories the people tell seem to be bigger than life.
By this point you’re either on the Michael Cera bandwagon or you’re not. If you’re not there is a very small chance that you will make it through this film’s running time. Not only is Cera super-duper awkward in every one of his scenes, the film also boasts Yi as the lead protagonist. While I personally found her oddly charming her mannerisms and monotone voice seem almost autistic at times.
Yi’s singular persona is likely the reason why this film went largely unseen, even by the Cera hardcore. If Cera’s market is niche, Yi’s target audience is fun sized. Still, for audiences who can get past her exterior, Yi is sort of a find. Her timing is sharp and her performance is actually very well studied. Too, as the film’s co-writer she demonstrates ample talent for creating meta narratives that at times remind one of a lo-fi Charlie Kaufman, even if they never reach his heady heights. If the dialogue was actually scripted, Yi might yet find herself as a major player in Hollywood, perhaps a female variant on Mike White.
The film was made on a shoestring budget and does nothing to hide this. However the nature of the content allows for the blasé aesthetics to seem purposeful rather than limiting, adding another layer of pseudo-reality to the proceedings. Too, the extremely rudimentary animation plays entirely more charmingly than it should. The multimedia switcheroos, interviews, scripted scenes, and animations come together to create a movie that works to not just suspend one’s disbelief, but to entirely expel it. I was bored stiff by the likes of Paranormal Activity and in fact, I hate the entire genre (minus the superb [REC]) but Paper Heart uses many of the typical conceits of found footage movies to vastly superior effect. I watched scenes where I knew it made no sense for the camera to roll, and yet I could almost swear that they were legit. And the third act has a nice little twist on the reality/fiction angle that reminds me of some silent European art films I watched in film school. Not only is this movie sweet and funny, it’s also fascinating on a technical level, and in modern comedy, that’s sort of a miracle.
The DVD transfer is crisp and clear, the audio was never muffled, even during the man on the street interviews. It’s not the kind of movie that really works your home theater too hard, but it does what it has to.
The DVD also boasts a slew of special features including:
Paper Heart Uncut (7 minutes)
The Making of Paper Heart (11 minutes)
Live Musical Performances (6 minutes)
Music Video (2 minutes)
Love Interviews (26 minutes)
Deleted Scenes (31 minutes)
The first two featurettes are basically for fans only. The first is Yi botching interviews and giggling at a very high pitch. I find her endearing, most will not.
The second is a sort of interesting making of doc. It shows some of the fictional elements and some of the real elements which help to dissect the film if that angle interests you.
The music stuff is mostly just Yi messing around on guitar. Tenacious D she is not, but I laughed a few times.
The love interviews are pretty great. They feature a bunch of hip comedians bouncing off of Yi and telling stories about their first loves. It’s good stuff, but it feels like they changed direction dramatically from the finished film. It’s nice to see them here, but the feature is better with the everyman approach.
Finally there is about half an hour of deleted scenes. The movie runs just right at 88 minutes, so every one of these was justly cut. But, as a guy who likes this movie primarily because of the way in which it mixes reality and fiction, these are pretty fun to watch.
I was shocked a few days ago to discover that this film made the bottom ten list for a large number of New York Film Critics. This is a film that deserves to be seen. It mixes reality and fiction better than any movie in recent memory and uses this to comment on the nature of love in cinema and reality TV. It’s funny, charming, and very intelligent…if you can stand the leads.