“Has anyone ever been in love?” asks pint-sized comedian Charlyne Yi, addressing the motley passersby on the Vegas strip in the opening scene of Paper Heart, Nick Jasenovec’s faux-documentary investigation into the nature of amour. While few take up Yi’s challenge there, she manages to find a few more willing participants over the next hour and a half, traveling the country and interviewing people about their experiences and attitudes toward love. The questioning—which takes in all types of relationships: straight couples, gay couples, biker communities—yields but modest insights, more along the line of “love is a hard thing to find—when you have it, keep it” than any heretofore undiscovered secret formulas.
Yi begins from a position of skepticism, claiming she doesn’t believe in love, but her interviews soon reveal an ingenuousness more archaic than refreshing, an attitude reflected in the disarmingly adolescent face of the young star. Occasionally these segments take on a preciousness that all but sinks the project, as in Yi’s decision to dramatize her subjects’ stories through the use of paper cutouts or when, in the film’s cutesy nadir, she interviews a group of schoolchildren on an Atlanta playground and a notably precocious young boy offers advice that sounds remarkably similar to that of the film’s adult interviews.
Perhaps sensing that a simple Q&A approach is a pretty slim foundation for a feature film, Jasenovec and Yi craft a fictional tale that runs alongside—and eventually takes over—the documentary segments, though the boundaries between the two are always blurred. As Yi traverses the country, she emerges as a character in her own right, chatting and arguing with her director who, while given the name Nick Jasenovec, is actually played by an actor, Jake Johnson. Introduced to baby-faced thesp Michael Cera (playing a version of himself) at film’s beginning, the two act out a fictionalized romance for the camera—passing through the stages of indifference, initial attraction, dating, love, breakup, and reconciliation. But while this portion of the film seems designed as a narrative counterpoint to the interview segments, its insistence on foregrounding the meta-fictional aspects means that the biggest problem facing the test-case couple is their lack of privacy (what with all those cameras around!), a concern not shared by too many real-life couples.
Instead, the filmmakers seem more interested in using the mockumentary setup to have some good, clean meta fun, though endless jokes about footage that winds up in the final film being destined for the b-roll must have been far more amusing for Jasenovec and Yi than they could possibly be for any audience. And they certainly don’t help to answer the film’s central question, but by then, the filmmakers seem to have pretty much lost all interest in probing the true nature of love.