"Paper Heart." The name conjures up kindergarten sweetness -- love celebrated in construction paper cutouts, before puberty, dating and disappointments begin to color the picture.
You get something close to that in this clever hybrid of a film as it swings between comedy, documentary and puppet reenactments with the slightest push from stars Charlyne Yi and Michael Cera, as variations on themselves, and Jake Johnson, as the film's director, Nick Jasenovec.
As much as the subject at hand is love, this is also very much a meta story about young artsy Hollywood, which makes it ripe for tedious self-referential excursions. But "Paper Heart" manages to work the meta mostly magically thanks to the sensibility brought by Yi, whose stand-up persona blends a childlike naivete with an almost perpetual state of shy embarrassment.
This romantic fable begins with the notion that Yi, who would seem a natural for fairy tales, doesn't believe in them when it comes to love. Yi, who co-wrote the movie with her director friend Jasenovec, decides to confront her sad state of disillusionment with a cross-country search for what loves means to all types of people.
But "real" life, in the form of Cera, who suddenly emerges as possible boyfriend material, begins to complicate everything. Does it destroy the premise if Yi falls in love? Can their new relationship survive if the camera and crew are always there?
Johnson, who plays the director on screen, keeps forcing the issue, and we watch as the relationship gets tested, with their emotions running parallel to the work Yi is doing to document those same emotions in the real people she encounters. It all feels very whimsical and very un-Hollywood, if for no other reason than the niceness of its characters, real and fabricated.
But then virtually nothing is conventional about the way the film is constructed. Most of the scenes with Yi and Cera and Johnson were improvised, giving those moments a raw believability. Nothing feels polished or planned about Yi's man-on-the-street interviews either, though it's the kids in the playground who turn out to be among the most astute.
An especially nice touch is the choice to use puppets to reenact the love stories the subjects tell Yi as she and the crew make their way into a Vegas wedding chapel, a biker bar and the living rooms of countless couples. There are just a few cutaways to photos of the lovers in earlier times; mostly their stories play out in a papier-mache, paint and pipe cleaner world built by Yi and her father after the filming was finished.
If you're expecting the documentary segments to shed anything new on the subject of love, you'll be disappointed. At best, they entertain in a "people say the darndest things" kind of way. But they do support the notion that people still fall in love and find a way to make it work for a lifetime, which is about as happy an ending as you could wish for.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some language
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: At the ArcLight Hollywood and the Landmark in West L.A.