Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Documentary About Love Helps Yi Find Love Herself

Charlyne Yi does not believe in love. Or so she says. Well, at the very least, she doesn’t believe in fairy-tale love or the Hollywood mythology of love, and her own experiences have turned her into yet another modern-day skeptic. Paper Heart follows Charlyne as she embarks on a quest across America to make a documentary about the one subject she doesn’t fully understand. As she and her good friend (and director) Nicholas search for answers and advice about love, Charlyne talks with friends and strangers, scientists, bikers, romance novelists, and children. They each offer diverse views on modern romance, as well as various answers to the age-old question: does true love really exist?

Paper Heart is a story about a documentary being made starring Charlene Yi. It’s not the documentary, it’s a biopic of the documentary – the events portrayed happened to Yi before the filming of Paper Heart. Even her filmmaker friend Nick Jasenovic (who is the cowriter and director and producer of Paper Heart) is played by Jake Johnson – so it’s about as meta as it gets in some places. The small but vital distinction shapes the film as a whole – rather than being Lost In La Brea, it’s more of a mockumentary story about love (not necessarily a love story). Can you imagine how Big Hollywood Marketing would mess this up? Yi set out to make a documentary about love, studying it as an anthropologist studies primitive cultures and rituals. She believes she will never be in love, that love has no role in her life, or maybe she’s broken. Her whole demeanor is so awkward, so unselfconscious, and so seemingly socially inept; yet she does stand-up comedy and performance art and pals around with smart (and famous) comics who all seem to be very fond of her. She seems to be lovable – perhaps the problem is she is not open to feeling love herself? In anyone else’s hands, this project would seem narcissistic or fake-humble aggrandizing. With Yi as our lead, it’s embarrassingly sincere. She crosses the country with her film crew, including Nick (as played by Jake) and Nick (the director of this film), finding wonderful interview subjects. The interviewee’s sections aren’t always question-response, but sometimes are storytelling opportunities to reveal themselves, an act of love to the audience. When reminiscing, rather than showing us talking heads describing the humorous or romantic events, Jasenovic has them as voice over while puppets act out their story. Not polished puppets, paper and string and wire and tape stick figures. They are crude, sweet, and subtly innovative (raging rivers, passing through scenery). It’s childlike but detail-oriented (what Yi seems to be), and hugely smile-inducing. The stories are already warm and nice but the puppets make them even more vulnerable and memorable.

When not getting the life stories of long-term marrieds, biology professors, or divorce lawyers, Paper Heart is about this little crew making this movie, and checking in on Yi to see if she believes in love yet. They reference the crew and the scene goals as if we’re watching a making-of featurette, and eventually it is the film itself that gets in the way of the story being told. This sounds like a criticism, but actually it’s an interesting and unique narrative device, and very meta-fictional. During production, Yi meets Nick’s friend (who happens to be Michael Cera – these folks are all in show business after all, so it’s not artificial at all). Cera takes a liking to Yi and she retreats, as we knew she would. She’s not insecure in herself, but she’s definitely locked down in some way that let’s her be all out on stage and hang as one of the dudes with her guy friends. She seems to have no female friends. Having had phases of that myself, I bet it’s because male friends just aren’t as emotionally challenging or risky to someone who is afraid to open her heart. Men don’t ask to be allowed into their buddies’ hearts, not compared to female friends, so she’s safe from risking her heart with the dudes. Cera is not like other dudes. True to many of the characters he has portrayed in film and television, Cera is very sweet and a little shy, and comfortable only with friends he trusts. He’s the perfect foil for Yi’s guard. Nick decides to incorporate their tentative, awkward courtship into the movie, and Yi’s project takes a big turn. I feel like I am spoiling it, but the movie’s appeal is how it twists in midstream and surprises you. The story the documentary was telling is sweet and the story of Yi possibly finding her heart blend together very sweetly and naturally. We grow to believe her disbelief in her own heart, and she learns things as well.  Paper Heart is a kooky, gentle movie that’s all about love, and well worth a look with an open heart. This cute little mockumentary gets an outstanding 4 on my "Go See" scale.

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