This isn’t a movie. This is like being trapped by the doting parents of a spectacularly backward child, who then proceed to bludgeon you with attempts to make you proclaim how adorable said child is. Now, I see a lot of movies, and a lot of them I don’t like very much. Very rarely, however, do I hate them. I hated Paper Heart. A lot.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit up-front that I dislike the so-called mockumentary genre—and Paper Heart is more or less a mockumentary. It’s a lazy genre of filmmaking that allows for a maximum of snarkiness with a minimum of effort. It requires little in the way of actual skill, because it carries the built-in excuse of trying to look “real.” Paper Heart actually ups the ante here by being partly (at least in theory) a real documentary crossed with a reality TV show in the bargain. The end result of this curious mélange is more akin to a shell game than anything else. Where does reality end and fabrication begin might sound like an interesting premise—even if we know that reality pretty much ends the minute people know they’re being filmed. But it’s not an engaging premise unless there’s some emotional investment involved. That—at least for me—is nowhere to be found in this contrivance.
The premise is that Charlyne Yi (a young woman who has had small roles in Knocked Up (2007) and Cloverfield (2008)) doesn’t believe in love and sets out to try to discover what love is by making a documentary on the topic. According to the film, Ms. Li is a comedian, a musician, an actress and an artist. I saw no convincing proof of any of these things, despite the fact that she’s playing herself. The hook is that she meets and becomes—largely against her will—involved with Michael Cera, with whom she either was or is involved in real life. Once again, we have the real person playing himself—or some variation of himself, since there’s nary a mention of the fact that he’s a successful movie personality, even if he’s of the alarmingly one-note variety. (He’s starting to remind me of a Jon Heder who has learned how to breathe through his nose.)
What this results in is an uninvolving simulacrum of romance between a pair of mumbling, inarticulate boobs who have no discernible personalities apart from a shared taste in hoodies. They live in completely depersonalized apartments that might as well be motel rooms. Their primary function in life seems to be “hanging out.” They go to “a movie.” What movie? Who knows? The film never tells us. In fact, the film never evidences any sign that either character has any interest in anything—I mean apart from deciding which hoodie to wear on any given day. They mumble. They mope. Ms. Yi tends to emit a braying laugh at her own quirky awkwardness. As far as I’m concerned, they mostly annoy.
The film sometimes scores in its actual (well, presumably actual, but how can we tell?) documentary footage of real-life interviews with people who have experienced love (or think they have, at any rate). But it’s hardly enough, and these bits only serve to make the vapidness of the Yi-Cera MTV’s Real World romance that much more vapid. This is where someone might jump in and praise the realism of the presentation, which would be a pretty strange assertion to make about something that is completely fabricated. But even conceding that it is some form of realism, so what? I’m siding with Quentin Crisp’s old statement that even the worst movie is at least better than real life—and if this is real life, I’ll take a large order of slick Hollywood fantasy.
You may find Paper Heart cute and precious and funny. You may find Yi and Cera absolutely adorable in their forced awkwardness (surely, they cannot be this shallow and boring in reality). The cheesy Michel Gondry knockoff puppet-theater interpolations may charm you. The conceit of watching a documentary about the making of a documentary in which a wholly fabricated story intrudes on the proceedings may engage you. Fine. I still think it’s painfully twee rubbish. Rated PG-13 for some language.