Before starring in Paper Heart, comedienne/musician/actress Charlyne Yi was best known as Jodi, the pot-smoking Asian girl whose giggly stream-of-consciousness patter stole a couple of scenes from stoner boys (and accomplished comedians) such as Martin Starr, Jason Segal, and Seth Rogen in 2007's Knocked Up. But although it's hardly as grating or twee as it looks, Paper Heart definitively proves that Yi's charms are best appreciated in small doses.
Paper Heart is part documentary, part scripted romantic comedy, and part grade school art project (certain stories and memories are re-created with pipe-cleaner dolls and Michel Gondry-esque construction-paper sets), but all of the film's forms are used to follow Yi's search for love in the universe.
The sequences where Yi asks mature adults about their heartbreaks and their romances are quietly effective, particularly when one woman who's been married for years claims that "the world looked better" during the early days of her relationship. But Yi and director/co-writer Nicholas Jasenovec are more interested in the dingbat philosophizing of grade school kids, bikers, Elvis impersonators, Las Vegas wedding-chapel directors, and roadside psychics, because these freaks' optimism, combined with their marginal social status, justifies Yi's skepticism about true romance more than the testimonials from ordinary folk. After all, who but a con-artist psychic who clearly hasn't a clue about Yi's life would ever try to claim that there's someone out there for her? (Almost as an act of vengeance, the psychic predicts romantic disaster for Yi.)
Yi's skepticism is challenged when she meets Michael Cera at a house party and begins a tentative, sorta sweet relationship with him that's filled with such 21st-century bohemian romantic tropes as late-night instant messaging, discreet kisses, and home-demo Moldy Peaches-type songs of longing. Supposedly, director Jasenovec (played in the film by actor Jake Johnson) changes the focus of his film from love in general to Yi's budding relationship in particular, but the introduction of Cera's "character" is so clearly a fictional contrivance that the switch feels false. As both Yi and Cera start to resent the ever-present cameras, Jasenovec and Yi seem on the verge of saying something here about the impact of science's "observer effect" on romantic relationships, but there's nothing in any scene here as funny or astute as Albert Brooks' 1979 reality-TV masterpiece Real Life.
Paper Heart's greatest achievement may be the way it shows the world through the eyes of a type of gal — the awkward, average-looking tomboy who cannot love — who never gets to star in movies even though she's been a fixture of the alternative high school and liberal-arts college micro-culture for years. As for Cera, he is loose and funny in his scenes with Yi, but how many more times can he play the stringbean in love with the quirky girl?