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The Giant Mechanical Man sounds like exactly the sort of film one would expect to see being mocked by Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot in an episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. And while I’m sure the two robots would find things to riff about it, it’s not their usual fare, as The Giant Mechanical Man is actually a romantic “dramedy” without a hint of science fiction anywhere in it. The film stars Jenna Fischer from The Office (US version) whose presence in the project drew my attention to it originally, and it’s directed by her husband, Lee Kirk.
Jenna Fischer plays Janice, who is basically her character Pam from The Office, if she had never met or married Jim. She’s stuck in a dead-end job (at a Temp Agency) and is directionless, having never quite figured out what it meant to be a grown up. When she is fired from her job, she becomes more confused than ever, and finds herself confiding in a short monologue to a silent street artist that she encounters in town (and had previously seen on TV): the eponymous Giant Mechanical Man.
In reality, this man’s name is Tim (played by Chris Messina, from The Newsroom) , and he is finding life just as challenging as Janice. He’s just had his girlfriend walk out of him, partly because he’s dedicated to painting himself silver, walking on stilts, and standing around letting people stare at him in the city in order to highlight to them how alienating modern life is.
By coincidence, Tim and Janice both get fairly tedious jobs at the local zoo (the Detroit Zoo, where a lot of the movie was filmed) where they meet and strike up a friendship. Janice doesn’t realize who Tim is, but Tim does recognize Janice from their previous encounter, and sees in her a kindred spirit. The movie moves forward with some fairly familiar “falling in love” story beats, but played in a way that feels genuine and heartfelt.
Indeed that is the strength of the movie: its willingness to play both its drama and its comedy in a way that is without showiness or fanfare, and remains emotionally honest. Tim and Janice aren’t exactly breaking new cinematic ground as characters, but at the same time they remain as unique as any two real people would be. We walk with them through times of laughter and times of heaviness, at a pace that doesn’t push you too hard into the next set piece, all while coming to love and care about what happens to them, just like we would with real friends.
Adding a dose of lunacy into all this believability is Topher Grace playing Doug, a self-obsessed motivational speaker who takes a shine for Janice, and is convinced that she feels the same (as of course any woman would, he assumes). He fulfills the traditional “rival” role that we expect in a romantic comedy, but most of screentime is devoted to him not being a complication for Tim, but rather for Janice herself, who doesn’t know how to cope with his attentions.
There’s some interesting thematic ideas running through the film: Doug teaches people how to communicate but he’s actually terrible at it himself. Janice must learn how to articulate herself to the world around her – to Doug to express her disinterest, to her sister who is convinced that Doug is the guy for her, to her boss to show that she’s actually worth more than her current job demonstrates, and eventually to Tim. And of course, Tim aspires to reflect a deep truth that he sees about the world, without using words at all.
Like many films, The Giant Mechanical Man is not the kind of project that we want every movie to be (I’m looking forward to Captain America: Civil War, for example), but its nice we live in a world of such rich variety of content and viewing platforms that there’s room for stuff like this.
So yeah, I liked it.