If you're one of those people who's terminally allergic to the thing we call quirk, stay far, far away from Paper Heart. It's a movie dominated by the wide open, guileless smile of actress Charlyne Yi, one in which crude paper puppets re-enact scenes from couples' lives and Michael Cera plays a large role.
But Paper Heart is also a strong argument against writing off quirk entirely, given how many small delights there are in its shaggy faux-documentary frame. Ostensibly a story about a girl named Charlyne who falls in love while also traveling the country to interview people about love, Paper Heart is a far more complex arrangement of half-truths and outright fiction, combining the open honesty of the documentary subjects with a carefully crafted Hollywood romance that, put together, hit all the right notes. It's easy to spend the whole time trying to figure out what really happened and what didn't, but it's far more interesting to just be captivated.
In fact, even the parts of the film that are the most honest involve a little tweaking. Charlyne (ostensibly a character played by Yi, though the overlaps seem to be significant) is traveling the country to interview everyday people about their experiences of love. She's accompanied by her director, Nick, who is supposedly Paper Heart's actual director Nick Jasenovec, but is actually an actor named Jake Johnson. Seriously, just go with it.
Charlyne interviews everyone from a lawyer-judge couple in Amarillo, Texas to a bar full of bikers, a lonely millionaire in Memphis to a bunch of kids on a playground in Atlanta. The stories she gets are almost always touching, even the jokes from the biker about beating his wife; they have the quality of a This American Life radio story, in which small and huge truths come out in a matter-of-fact way that suggest, hey, that's life.
Meanwhile, back in Los Angeles, Charlyne meets a guy named Michael (Michael Cera, again, supposedly playing a character), and they begin an awkward courtship made even more awkward by the fact that Nick has decided that their relationship is part of the documentary. As we watch this relationship grow between two people who were often rumored to have been dating in real life, we're made acutely aware of the fact that we're intruders on their personal lives. And then we remember that the filmmakers have been very honest about the fact that these scenes are scripted. It's all very complicated.
Much of the movie's depth comes from the viewer's mental gymnastics, trying to figure out what's real and what's not and questioning how much it matters in the process. The central problem that Charlyne is trying to solve from the outset-- she doesn't believe in love-- turns out to be more of a red herring. There's no lightning bolt realization at the end, nor do Charlyne and Michael ever admit they are in love, but the endless examples of lasting, true love in all the interview subjects is all the argument you need. The movie doesn't cover divorced couples, or arguing couples; even the engaged 17-year-olds get a free pass. Charlyne never admits it, but the movie is so enamored with the examples of love it has found that it's impossible for anyone to remain a cynic.
Paper Heart is fundamentally a small movie, plumbing only minor insights from both its documentary subjects and its main character. But the documentary aspect makes it feel less self-indulgent and wasteful than it might have, while the love story at the center gives it the cuddly feel of a more traditional romance. The quirk occasionally walks right up to the line of unbearable, but it's Paper Heart's unabashedly bared soul that saves it in the end.