Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival
So many movie romances seem to occur out of inevitability--here's who we are, here's why we're here--that the rare film which contains a sense of surprise and discovery is commendable, even when it comes in a package as flawed as The Giant Mechanical Man. It's a film that's plagued with problematic writing and irritatingly convenient coincidences, but it has at its center a fundamentally sweet and credible relationship, in which two people find each other and are pleased by what happens next.
Jenna Fischer stars as Janice: lonely, single, thirtysomething, aimless. She work for a temp agency, taking cherry gigs like standing in front of museum doors that have broken and keeping people away from the empty closet inside, and can't even hold that down; kicked out of her apartment, she moves in with her sister (Malin Akerman) and brother-in-law (Rich Sommer). Chris Messina is Tim, a street performer who paints his face, steps into stilts, and collects tips as a living statue. She is fascinated by this "mechanical man," but when they both get low-level jobs at the local zoo, she doesn't make the connection; they begin a tentative and low-key courtship, though Janice's sister is ceaseless in trying to set her up with a self-centered motivational speaker (Topher Grace).
First-time director Lee Kirk has a good eye, an off-kilter sense of frame and composition, but his script is way on the nose--supporting characters are often free of nuance (like the yuppies in an early party scene), and there are far too many complications brought on by sitcom-style coincidences and perfectly-timed misinterpretations. Several scenes, particularly in the third act, play like first drafts in dire need of more work; Janice's promotion scene is comically simple-minded (it plays as though written by someone who's never had a job), and the big blow-up between the sisters is sadly pedestrian.
But there are some great scenes between Fischer and Messina, and that's where the heart of the thing lies anyway. Their chemistry is delightful, and the scene where he finally asks her out is so sweet and perfect, you just want to melt--it's a lovely little moment that perfectly bottles that tiny but vital thrill of possibility. They've got a good, easy vibe in their two-scenes; both actors have a valuable believability that comes in handy here. Fischer has always been good at playing desperate characters without seeming a desperate actor, and she can put a delicious comic spin on even her least inspired dialogue. And while Grace's character is an easy target, they share a scene that dramatizes, with great perception, the awkwardness of being on a date by obligation (her cutaways are priceless).
The Giant Mechanical Man is far from a must-see, but it has moments worth digging out, and serves as a fine showcase for some cherished performers. It has no big message; it has no aim to shock or shake. It's a small picture, inverted even, in ways both good and bad.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.