'Paper Heart'

"Paper Heart" -- with Charlyne Yi and Michael Cera -- blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction.

Part documentary, part (almost undetectably) scripted, “Paper Heart” blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction cinema. However, there may be a fairly sharp line dividing those who find the whole delightfully odd, and those irked by what could be read as a faux childlike simplicity to the enterprise, particularly in subject/lead/interviewer Charlyne Yi’s uber-geek-girl persona. Sure to stir plenty of fest interest, the pic will intrigue buyers, but definitely reps a marketing and placement challenge.

Yi is best known to general audiences as the weird lone girlfriend in “Knocked Up’s” house of stoner dudes. In Los Angeles and beyond, she’s acquired a following for very quirky standup that has little to do with jokes or storytelling. Wearing glasses, ponytail and schlumpy clothes, laughing and speaking in ways that might suggest she’s a bit “special,” Yi cuts an exaggeratedly nerdy figure. So much so that it’s hard to gauge just how much of it is an act.

Premise here is that Yi agrees to make a documentary with director Nicolas Jasenovec chronicling her search for the meaning of love — primarily via other people’s wisdom, since she doesn’t quite grasp the concept or expect to ever experience true love herself.

She and the small crew do a fast tour around the nation asking real people their thoughts on love. Geographically scattered interviewees range from newlyweds to golden-anniversary couples, plus a chemist, biologist, romance novelist, psychic, Atlanta playground full of kids, Las Vegas Elvis-imitator minister, divorce lawyer, biker-bar patrons, and more.

These people are touchingly, often humorously frank about their most profound interpersonal connections, offering a range of definitions of love — although the pic stacks the deck by keeping Yi the only real skeptic on hand. When subjects reminisce, their stories are briefly illustrated by extra-primitive puppetry segments.

These are the clearly docu aspects of “Heart,” which elsewhere raises many questions as to whether what we’re seeing is staged or not. Does Yi really become reluctantly involved with Michael Cera (as himself), young-geek-male du jour of “Juno” and “Superbad,” or is the relationship scripted and/or improvised to provide an eventual narrative engine? (Their discomfort with the camera crew’s constant presence becomes a primary conflict.)

Then there’s the fact that the onscreen Jasenovec — even more Yi’s co-star than Cera — is actually played by an actor, Jake M. Johnson, as closing credits reveal.

Perhaps realizing that a little too much Yi might get old fast, Jasenovec and editor Ryan Brown’s deft package rarely lets her occupy the spotlight without someone else to play off. To whatever extent he’s winging it, Cera remains a wryly comic presence.

Tech aspects are above the documentary norm.

Paper Heart

Production

An Anchor Bay Entertainment presentation of a Paper Heart production. (International sales: United Talent Agency, Los Angeles.) Produced by Elise Salomon, Sandra Murillo. Executive producers, Nicholas Jasenovec, Charlyne Yi. Directed by Nicholas Jasenovec. Screenplay, Jasenovec, Charlyne Yi.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Jay Hunter; editor, Ryan Brown; music, Michael Cera, Yi; sound (Dolby Digital), Devendra Cleary, Jacob Riehle; puppet designers, Yi, Luciano Yi; casting, Eileen Kennedy. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 17, 2009. Running time: 88 MIN.

With

Charlyne Yi, Michael Cera, Jake M. Johnson.

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