If the great comedian Bob Newhart had an Asian American love child it would be Charlyne Yi. She’s the drollest comic working today and her deadpan style makes the comic documentary “Paper Heart,” premiering in dramatic competition at the Sundance Film Festival, a fresh, irreverent road comedy.
Yi’s journey begins walking the Las Vegas strip asking passersby questions and she is hilariously awkward. She has a philosophical agenda. She wants to know what love is.
With director and co-writer Nicholas Jasenovec in tow, as well as actor Jake Johnson who plays Jasenovec in front of the camera, Yi travels a variety of places including Lubbock, Texas and Nashville. She attends wedding ceremonies at the Little White Chapel in Las Vegas. Her funniest interviews take place at an Oklahoma City biker bar (where Yi gamely takes a ride).
Yi plays the reporter on the street with hilarious earnestness and despite her small stature she always stands out.
Adding to the film’s oddball nature, handmade puppets act out stories from the various people they interview. A husband rushes to the hospital while his wife gives birth. A hunter falls into a cold Alaska stream and sees the face of a previous love. They are sweet, surreal interludes within Yi’s funny adventure.
A subplot involving Yi dating actor and friend Michael Cera bring an added nuttiness to the film. Their first date at a Hollywood hot dog stand is both sweet and funny.
Yi, a co-writer of the film, blends fact and fiction with childlike glee. There are times when you’re not sure what to make of “Paper Heart.” Is it all one experimental gag? Yet its loony spirit is its charm and Yi is the perfect face for a road tale this absurd.
Perhaps it takes a diminutive Asian American female comic to push aside Michael Moore and become film’s new doc star. Like Moore, Yi assumes a role more important than any of her subjects. She travels the country asking people about love but “Paper Heart” is not so much about their answers as Yi’s reactions to their answers.
Yi has a round face, the beginnings of a double chin and a barrage of funny facial expressions that seldom fail to generate laughs. Her black hair is pulled back into a simple ponytail and black eyeglasses serve as her trademark much like Tina Fey.
Yi has done the reporter on the street gag before in comic shorts but she and Jasenovec take the gag to new heights with “Paper Heart.”
It’s “Clerks” in terms of youthful enthusiasm and bare bones production. It’s Richard Linklater’s “Slacker,” a comic look at everyday people and Moore’s “The Big One” a crazy road trip filled with laughs.
Granted, Yi is not a comic for everyone, meaning that “Paper Heart” may tickle select audiences instead of the mainstream crowds who remember her from “Knocked Up.” Some may confuse her drollness as a lack of energy throughout the film.
But “Paper Heart is clever handmade moviemaking and its impromptu feeling only makes Yi funnier. She is the new Michael Moore and I think that’s a step up.