Back in 2012, Jenna Fischer from the US version of The Office was instrumental in getting a film made called The Giant Mechanical Man.  The title makes it sound like it's something you'd find spoofed on Mystery Science Theatre 3000, but actually it turns out the movie is nothing to do with robots or science fiction at all, but is rather a low-key romantic "dramady".   I was drawn to the project by the presence of Jenna Fischer, who produced the film and stars in it, and is married to the director, 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 really means to be an adult.  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 film:  its willingness to play both its drama and its comedy without showiness or fanfare, while remaining 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 people would be in real life.  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 any woman would, he assumes).  He fulfills the traditional “rival” role that we expect in a romantic comedy, but most of screen-time 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 about communication running through the film:  Doug teaches people how to talk to people, 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 ultimately to Tim himself.  And of course, Tim aspires to reflect a deep truth that he sees about the world, without using words at all.

This thematic depth, the honest performances and the gentle direction make The Giant Mechanical Man a satisfying way to spend the evening.  It's not the kind of project that we want every movie to be (I enjoy superheros and actions films as much as anyone), 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.

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Published by Ben Mcclure