What’s Love Got To Do With Yi?
Charlyne Yi is like fig and goat cheese ice cream.
Her style of comedy is a similar mix of discordant flavors; not for everybody, but new and unusual for those willing to try.
As the star of "Paper Heart," a pseudo-documentary about her quest to understand true love, the comedic surrealist travels the country interviewing real people about their romances. But the film also chronicles her romance with actor Michael Cera. Sort of.
Is their relationship real, fiction, a hybrid of both? Some elements of the film are definitely made up, but as the film expands to 68 cities Friday, Yi hopes audiences will find their questioning brains tickled.
"It's interesting how a film that's completely fictional can touch someone. And a documentary can, too. But if it's a hybrid, (audiences) can get confused about what they should feel," she says, sitting outside Scoops ice cream shop in Los Angeles, known for unusual combination flavors that include Guinness and cream, bacon and caramel, and, of course, goat cheese and fig.
The name of the last one makes her face wrinkle. "That sounds disgusting," she says, but she digs in to try. It actually tastes like cheesecake. "It doesn't taste bad, actually," Yi says, trying some more. "I think I just imagined a goat going 'Baaaaaaa!' Once you apply an animal to an ice cream, it sounds strange."
Yi was inspired by Charlie Kaufman, whose films "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation" ''both mess with reality. None of it really happened," she says. The topic "What is love?" - a universal question forever pondered by humanity - naturally lent itself to this playful mix of deep truths and hoax.
"I don't think anyone has the answer," Yi says, slipping into the third person to differentiate the self-titled character she plays from her real self. "The character and the real Charlyne went into the documentary part knowing she would learn from asking questions. It's an experience thing." She laughs: "But I don't think I have any more of an idea what love is, actually. I'm just questioning it. Everyone should question it instead of just assuming it is what it is."
"Paper Heart" was a favorite at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and Yi and filmmaker Nicholas Jasenovec won a best-screenplay prize from the festival jury - ironic, given how much improvisation was involved.
"The film had to feel as real as possible for the two sides of the film to blend together and work together. The fake stuff had to feel as real as the documentary stuff," Jasenovec says.
Jasenovec is a supporting character in the film, the pushy young director who intrudes on Yi and Cera's nascent romance. But on-screen, he is played by an actor named Jake M. Johnson, which is one of the movie's most obvious fakeries, but not to the real people in the film.
Practically everyone who saw the film at Sundance asked the same question: Are Yi and Cera a real couple? At the start of the festival, she answered by saying: "I'm wondering that, too!"
Now she just tries not to answer, not so much because she's guarding her personal life from the prying tabloid press - she and Cera are not exactly Brangelina - but because she thinks it breaks the spell of the movie.
Yi's ability to puzzle audiences about what's sincere and what's a goof fuels much of her stage comedy show, which has a cult following in L.A. and is a favorite of fellow comedians such as Seth Rogen and Demetri Martin, who appear briefly in "Paper Heart."
For example, she will sometimes spin elaborate lies about her troubled marriage (she's not married) that start out sincere and sad but gradually become outlandish. The audience's laughter is tentative, because people are not sure whether they should laugh.
"My humor isn't meant to be mean or hurt anyone. But it's to make them uncomfortable and laugh. I like making people feel a different range of emotions. I like to make people a bit confused."