Yi first gained mainstream recognition for her “stoner” role in Knocked Up which helped to gain some attention for her film, Paper Heart. In fact, many of the friends interviewed in Paper Heart are also comedians and several are in recent films and TV shows. And all of these friends are men. At one point, Yi and her director (fellow actor Jake Johnson playing Nick Jasenovic) comments that she wants to be one of the guys and she says that she is one of the guys. And as a quirky, goofy comedian, singer, songwriter, painter she fits right in. This film firmly establishes her talent amongst the popular young comedians who dominate film and
TV. Both Yi and the real Jasenovic won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for the dramatic category at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.
Charlyne Yi plays a scripted version of herself as does Michael Cera while Jake Johnson plays a scripted version of director, Nick Jasonevic. In the midst of this scripted film, Yi also plays herself making a documentary where she interviews an assortment of people about their views on love. The DVD also provides a variety of deleted scenes and other special features that offer a closer look into the film, and into Yi’s comedy, and also reveal some insights into what went into making Paper Heart. Even with all of these pieces, Paper Heart defies categorization and definition. It ironically challenges the omnipresence of film crews in the lives of celebrities and reality TV stars and deliberately mixes fact and fiction. Yi’s talents are showcased, real ordinary people’s ideas are considered, celebrity is tapped, and the audience gets an entertaining and thought-provoking film.
Aside from the film there are other aspects that must be considered when looking at Paper Heart as a girls’ film. As mentioned above, all of the other actors and comedians in this film are young men and Yi fits right in. She fits in with her sarcasm, wit, humor, and style and she is accepted amongst her peers. And as a peer she establishes a sub-narrative in this film about love as these young men see it. She questions the existence of love in the midst of men who assure her that love does exist; in fact, the only female friend who is consulted gives her take during a phone conversation with the director-actor. In some ways this depiction of love is a kind of role reversal from masculine and feminine stereotypes and in other ways this exploration of love allows Yi to exist almost completely outside of her gender and race.
If the subject of the film was not “love,” then perhaps Yi might have been able to escape the familiar traps of gender. But in many ways she complicated, diverts, or undermines gendered expectations. For instance, when Yi does what can be expected in a film about a girl searching for love—like trying on a wedding dress—the brief moment that this scene occupies, and the total lack of interest or comfort that this ritual conveys, subverts the usual high-pitched ooing and awing that often accompanies such displays of heterosexual normality. Yi’s gender identity is made virtually invisible in this film and in her professional persona. She retains her status as one of the guys throughout the film as Nick fulfills the role of best friend and her pursuit of love happens almost reluctantly. Michael Cera’s character reveals heterosexuality and their courting (for lack of a better term) which includes very few stereotypical feminine/masculine roles, perhaps in part because of Michael Cera’s perceived innocence and awkwardness and Yi’s own awkwardness and sexlessness. The ever-present cameras help to increase the awkwardness and are a good excuse for a lack of physical expression, even if these elements are scripted.
In addition to invisibility concerning her gender identity, Yi’s racial/ethnic identity is also made invisible, even more so than her gender. Despite the fact that Yi is of mixed racial heritage and “looks Asian”, her ethnic/racial identity is never a topic of a joke or any conversation in the film. It is never mentioned and she is, for the most part, the only non-white comedian in the film or in her cadre of peers. This is, of course, refreshing to an extent. Yi is allowed to just “be herself” and she has control over the persona we are seeing. This alone accounts for the lack of stereotypes and casting limitations that are typical for girls and women (particularly girls and women of color) in film and especially in comedy. It is because of this lack of engagement with
racial or ethnic identities or issues that Yi is able to maintain her racial/ethnic invisibility and her uniqueness. She is just one of the (white) guys who happens to be a cute/nerdy girl.
Charlyne Yi might be talking to people about love, but because this is an abstract idea, she is able to mostly detach love from the body. In fact, initially the film that Yi intended to make was a documentary and she did not intend to be on camera. Love is discussed for its physiological and neurological effects (physical qualities that are independent of physical appearance) as
she interviews scientists, but love is mostly discussed abstractly, mostly heterosexually, and mostly romantically. The brief departures are too far and few between—when she interviews a gay couple (men) and when biker’s tell her that their friendships are the truest kind of love, for instance. Yi’s spontaneous interviews with children also provide for a variety of
view points on the subject of love and reveal just how much children internalize cultural messages about love and romance.
Part of the beauty of this film is that amidst these conflicting cultural massages about love is a film that purposely confuses the line between real and not real. Because of this confusion there was also confusion over just how much of the film was “real,” particularly regarding the fictional romance between Cera and Yi that was purported as real in a variety of film reviews and promotions. At least some of the film’s success can be attributed to the role that Cera played by playing himself and that many fans and critics confused the film for reality. In a N.Y. Times article published just before the theatrical release of Paper
Heart, Dave Itskoff writes: “Ms. Yi’s choice of Mr. Cera for this role would seem deliberate, even daring, given that the two are widely reported to have been romantically involved in real life. But Ms. Yi declined to discuss her history with Mr. Cera. ‘Whether or not me and Michael are together or were ever together is irrelevant,’ she said. ‘We’re acting, and we’re also friends, so that doesn’t make it difficult.’” And, yet, even the press for Paper Heart seems to be contradictory as Yi has had to answer questions about her relationship with Cera and most of Yi’s post-film press has been about this relationship. Cera, on the other hand, has other films and his growing fame to talk about. Being linked with Yi only gives him more star power, especially since the tabloids report how he dumped her because of his mega-fame.
And yet, I think Yi holds her own against these interrogations (and perhaps as a result doesn’t seem to get a whole lot of post-Paper Heart work). In an interview in August 2009, Yi remarks, “Someone sent me an article that I was really sad. It says that
I'm sad that we're touring together.” She dismisses this conjecture with the fact that Cera is working on another film, only one answer in her arsenal. The public interest, verging on obsession, with the status of Yi and Cera’s relationship not only speaks to our celebrity-obsessed culture but also to our obsession with romance and sexuality—at least the fictionalized versions.