Charlyne Yi ("Knocked Up") and director Nicholas Jasenovec (whose credentials seem to consist mainly of being friends with Seth Rogen) have co-written a neat twist on the romantic comedy by blurring identity and reality.
The premise is this: Yi, playing herself, claims to not believe in love. She thinks the whole subject has been tainted by years of TV and movies, where love is presented as the source of all happiness and contentment.
Yi agrees to let Jasenovec (the only person in the movie not playing himself; he's portrayed by Jake M. Johnson of "Redbelt") follow her around with a small film crew while she talks about love with various people. They start with their famous friends Rogen and Martin Starr ("Adventureland"), who make token, 20-second appearances to lend an air of Hollywood legitimacy to the proceedings.
The crew then accompanies Yi to a house party where she meets Michael Cera ("Year One," "Juno"), who is also playing a strange, alternate-universe version of himself. There's an obvious chemistry between them, and Cera follows Yi around the party, despite her repeatedly giving him the slip. On a 1-to-10 scale of twitchy awkwardness, Cera and Yi both rank as solid nines, presenting together a veritable library of nervous tics and stilted speaking styles. In other words, they're perfect together in an unexpected way, like cheese with apple pie.
Yi's excursions around the country gradually become interspersed with IM sessions, phone chats and dates with Cera. They kiss like high school freshmen, and finally become boyfriend and girlfriend.
As a result, Jasenovec wants Cera in his documentary, and crafts a romantic narrative around their relationship. The rough plot trajectory is that Yi started out not believing in love, but love found her anyway. While Yi isn't exactly happy about developing her relationship with Cera under a lens, Cera is especially un-thrilled. Eventually Yi, who learned everything she knows about love from movies and TV, will realize love actually can't exist inside the type of constructed movie-style narrative Jasenovec is trying to impose.
Two things make "Paper Heart" work: First, the house-of-mirrors confusion created by the actors using their real names creates a novel feel, where documentary and fiction are indistinguishable. Second, the actors' charm and wit is entertaining. While Yi, Cera and their pals are painfully hip "? almost to the point of being annoying "? they are also genuinely funny and smart. This does a lot to cancel out their love for ironic glasses, hoodies and accordions, and it helps "Paper Heart" meet the most important criterion of any romantic comedy: One has to like the characters, or the whole thing is pointless.
Unlike most standard romantic comedies, what we wind up with is infinitely sweeter and more realistic than the fairy tale endings we've come to expect from the genre.