Is My Heart is an Idiot an act of utter solipsism or utter self-effacement? The feature-length documentary, the full-length debut of Portland filmmaker David Meiklejohn, takes (and elicits) no small amount of pleasure in flailing between the two poles.
Meiklejohn's film is about Davy Rothbart, a familiar face and voice in the DIY scene. Rothbart edits Found magazine — that repository of misplaced and discarded messages, photos, and ephemera — contributes to This American Life, and is a published fiction writer. He is also an epic, maybe even willful, failure as a romantic, and this is the ostensible subject of My Heart is an Idiot.
Rothbart's masochistic tendencies developed early, and are revealed from the onset of the film, in ruefully funny home videos wherein Rothbart announces that he's recording the convulsive aftermath of an early breakup "so everyone can see how horrible I was." The irony turns out to be that he can't seem to remember how awful it feels to cheat on a girlfriend, as he repeats this mistake and others throughout his adolescence and young adulthood.
Much of the emotional focus of the film's present day is on Alex, Rothbart's ex-roommate (she relocates to San Francisco early in the film). An olive-skinned vision in shorts and an NBA jersey (clearly a plus to a quirky dresser like Rothbart), Alex is kind and funny, but reserved, leading Rothbart to relentless anguish (of the "Should I call her? How much should I tell her? Should I call her?" variety) as he tours the country promoting Found en route to reuniting with her for a few days in California.
The tours (Meiklejohn follows two in the film) offer some entertaining diversions, but also contain the brunt of the film's excess baggage, primarily Rothbart's unnecessary habit of narrating the names of friends, towns, and venues — which get a minute or two of screen time only to never be spoken of again, a drag that reaches its nadir during a lengthy, irrelevant stretch in Portland. (The version of My Heart is an Idiot I screened is five minutes longer than the official theatrical cut.) These moments don't do much except prove that Rothbart is ultimately a nice dude.
This is not a minor issue, as the film's lone plot development is better described as a slap than a twist. The news, which I won't overtly spoil, is deftly withheld and then maneuvered by Meiklejohn, upending Rothbart's romantic aspirations and the film's genial travelogue in a series of aggressively stylized, quite obviously staged scenes which have prompted (and will continue to prompt) some interesting post-screening debates. Whether or not you find their content dubious, you have to admit their execution is dazzling.
Hereafter emerges the viewer's bipolar reaction to Rothbart, handily mirrored by Rothbart's own response to his own love life: Is this guy a woefully misguided romantic, or is he a disloyal, deeply accidental asshole? Observing Rothbart's sweet interactions with (literally) everyone he encounters, the mystery deepens, and reaches an apex of sorts when his own mother calls him a "con artist."