Tribeca Movie Review: The Giant Mechanical Man

Jenna Fischer as Janice, Chris Messina as Tim

Jenna Fischer as Janice, Chris Messina as Tim

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

A vanity project for Jenna Fischer, The Giant Mechanical Man is yet one more in a string of lost thirtysomething comedies, in which attractive, unemployed people bemoan their state and wonder why they don’t have a job. Here, we meet Fischer’s Janice as she’s being fired from her temp agency, informed that although she’s a nice person, she’s not personable. No longer able to pay the rent, she’ll have to move in with her sister Jill (Malin Ackerman) and Jill’s husband Brian (Rich Sommer).

Meanwhile street artist Tim (Chris Messina) has troubles of his own. His girlfriend is moving out and he, too, doesn’t have a pot to piss in. (And yet, starving artist or no, he lives in a hip, spacious downtown loft.) These two meet as they both answer an ad in the newspaper (ads in a newspaper, in today’s online world?). It seems that the city zoo is hungry for applicants, and before you can say, let’s hold hands in front of the monkey cage, they’re both dressed in brown, locking eyes and making small talk. Wait, is that the monkeys or the humans? Not that it matters, either mating ritual will do …

What Janice doesn’t know is that in Tim’s spare time, he paints himself silver, straps on a pair of stilts and transforms himself into an eight-foot tall piece of performance art, viewable on many corners of this purposely unnamed city. (Writer/director Lee Kirk had planned on using Chicago but given that the location was too expensive, opted for the distressed Detroit instead.) Maintenance man by day, Giant Mechanical Man by night, Tim might have been a fascinating character. That is, if anyone had bothered to create him as such.

Writer/director Kirk doesn’t so much structure a film as place his camera around the city (credit to cinematographer Doug Emmett, a pro who knows how to set up some nice sequences), and let his actors chatter at each other. The dialogue has no subtext; instead, the characters blurt out exactly what’s on their mind, all the time. And given that their minds aren’t all that complex, we get to stumble through an hour-and-a-half of “I don’t know what to do with my life,” ad nauseam.

This first-time director owes his characters so much more. The zoo’s HR woman tells Janice that she’s over-qualified for a concession job. Fine … what makes her over-qualified? How does a mid-thirtyish woman have no back story, other than the reference late in the film that she was adopted? How did she land in this particular city, with no wherewithal, at this stage of her life? Ditto Tim … surely he must have worked sometime in his past. Does he have a plan for his Mechanical Man? He uses words with more than one syllable, yet is only fit for maintenance work … was he too poor to afford a decent education?

Particularly since the film has no substantial plot points driving any semblance of story – any half-assed twenty-two minute sit-com offers more content – then the movie would have to be, by default, a reflective character study/romance about how these two people connect. Or not.

Jenna Fisher as Janice, Topher Grace as Doug

As Tim, Chris Messina does what he can to portray a kind, rudderless soul. Fischer continues to be a pleasant but ineffective lightweight, only conveying some genuine emotion during the one decent scene with Messina in the second act. Scenes between the sisters are atrocious, a hammering yowl-fest of ceaseless, circular logic. And Topher Grace, playing an ersatz self-help guru, looks to have mistakenly wandered in from another film altogether – one of parody, that fits this movie as poorly as his baggy sweaters and shaggy, unwashed hair.

In a perfect parallel to the co-leads in The Giant Mechanical Man, the time has come, or rather is overdue, for the twentysomething-to-thirtysomething filmmakers to grow up. Can we finally ditch the slacker slouch, the mumblecore mumble of sheer pap? For every well-crafted script, bursting with a unique voice, rife with multiple layers of subtext behind the lines, characters so full of inner complexities that they fairly jump off the page … comes an endless army of yawn, with The Giant Mechanical Man marching right in front.

No, Mr. Lee Kirk, you’re no Tarantino, Coen Bro., Baumbach, or Anderson (P.T. or Wes, take your pick). But you could certainly try to dig a little deeper. For all of us who continue to hope for the best in our cinema.

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Rating on a scale of 5 extraordinarily large tin men: 1.5

Written and Directed by: Lee Kirk
Cast: Jenna Fischer, Chris Messina, Topher Grace, Malin Akerman, Rich Sommer, Lucy Punch, Bob Odenkirk
Running Time: 94 minutes

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 450+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/kimberly-gadette/). Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.

Comments

  1. darci says:

    Most of these indie romantic comedies are simply awful exploitation films, lacking strong characters, and worst of all, usually have terrible chemistry between the two leads. To that end, Jenna Fischer and Chris Messina exude a natural chemistry that never seems too forced or awkward, despite both of their characters being kind of awkward losers.

    From the moment they meet (in a great scene which was also made better by the use of “Our Bleeding Hearts” by Great Northern) Fischer and Messina’s characters play so well off each other that I was able to forgive this movie for having a few common problems with this genre (such as Topher Grace’s ‘rival’ character who is really just a cartoon pardoy). I’ll give this a solid 7/10.

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