There’s a special sort of Hell where films like “The Giant Mechanical Man” play, with the same ideas and tropes repeated around the clock, with the mistaken assumption that they’re endearing or, even worse, adorable. It’s the sort of picture that gives independent films a bad name, the type of film that invites jackholes coming out of “Transformers 7” to say, “I ain’t seeing that faggy indie shit!” In reality, there’s a very good chance “Transformers 7” could very well be less obnoxious than “The Giant Mechanical Man.”
Tim (Chris Messina) is precious. Tim lives alone with his put-together girlfriend (Lucy Punch, thankless), and when she takes him to a work party, he has nothing to discuss with anyone else. When one particularly crude guest fires off some casual profanity, Tim chastises him. When the same man brags about his $3000 television set, Tim goes on the warpath against this stranger’s spending habits. Never at any point does it seem that this may be none of Tim’s business, though it clearly embarrasses his red-faced girlfriend. As it should.
Janice (Jenna Fischer) is precious. She moves from temp job to temp job, and when she is let go for not being personable, she takes it as an affront. Clearly, these rude, unfair, indecent employers have no place wishing their hires to be attentive, sharp, friendly and pleasant. The painfully awkward Janice responds to this with long, ill-fitting silences, her face saying to onlookers on the train, “I’m broken.”
Tim is also special. His means of income involves dousing his whole body in makeup, wearing stilts and heading to the town square every day, to pose silently as The Giant Mechanical Man. With a tip in his box, he’ll whir and buzz with a deadpan expression, in what is apparently, as he explains it, a deadly serious parody of the working man. It is not a very lucrative business, though Tim explains to his girlfriend that it’s going to help him break out, it will help him become something more. Tim’s gotta be in his thirties by now, but there are no signs of him writing, painting, performing or creating any other art beyond his Mechanical Man. Where this performance is supposed to be leading is apparently a very special place that mere mortals couldn’t begin to understand.
If this review sounds judgmental towards these characters, it’s because it is. And that’s due to the film having absolutely no respect for its peripheral characters. There is room for films with one-dimensional characters who are completely secondary to the story, the special effects or even the music. Those are usually big, dumb blockbusters that aren’t expected to show any humanity towards anyone, treating people like chess pieces. But “The Giant Mechanical Man” wants so badly for you to like its central duo that it pitifully writes every other character as a one-dimensional tremendous jerk that couldn’t possibly understand these very special people. Not only is that deeply manipulative, dramatically stacking the deck for our lead characters, therefore making any “difficult” decisions look somewhat easy, but it also violates the tenets of basic storytelling, in that you should have respect for each and every character. If you don’t have respect for all your characters, you don’t have respect for people.
Sister Jill (Malin Ackerman) lets Janice move in with her after she is evicted, under the reasonable request that Janice let Jill help remodel her life. However, Jill goes about this with the subtlety and self-awareness of a bulldozer, specifically forcing onto her the literature of Doug Duncan. Duncan, a deeply narcissistic self-help guru, has penned a series of books about being a good conversationalist, an area where Jill sees flaws in hapless, timid Janice. How Duncan has achieved this is by, predictably, talking over everyone else, and keeping the subject of his rants himself and his journeys. You’d have to be blind to not realize Duncan is a shitball of the highest order. Fortunately, the filmmakers made it even easier for the audience to dislike this douchebag by casting Topher Grace in a fetid turn that is noxiously self-satisfied and yet rancidly unfunny. And inexplicably, when a can’t-stand-it-any-longer Janice finally flips her wig over her overbearing sister’s cartoonish approach to help, Ackerman’s Jill abruptly and briefly transforms into an understanding older sister, the narrative suddenly assuming it can have it both ways.
As Janice, Fischer is all navel-gazing sadness and twee silences, the type of “acting challenge” that involves long pauses and incessant whining. Fischer is a naturally pretty girl somehow pigeonholed by Hollywood as The Dowdy One, and anyone who’s seen her in a series of under watched indie films and TV’s “The Office” will recognize her greatest hits. As Tim, Messina is an irritating series of brooding tics and disapproving sighs. Though Tim is an “artsy” type, Messina can’t help but infuse this character with that vague sense of being a bit of a bully, and it adds an inappropriate edge to what’s supposed to be a romantic lead, as if a violent outburst that never happens is suspected at any moment. In other words, he’s probably perfectly cast as a guy who would go to a work party and insult and guilt someone for spending too much on a television set.
Directed by Lee Kirk (Fischer’s husband, which gives you a sudden, “oh, now I get” forehead slapping realization of why this film isn’t filled with unknown hasbeens as might otherwise have been the case), “The Giant Mechanical Man” is insufferably tone-deaf to any kind of relatively genuine human experience, instead treating the two leads as peculiar oddballs who just haven’t found their footing in the modern world. Had Kirk and his script taken the pains to paint these characters as such, a rush of empathy would, no doubt, ensue. But the reality is that these two are thinly drawn caricatures, both appearing as unbearable dimwits where no such sympathy exists. And when anything remotely resembling real emotion fails to connect with the viewer (often), Kirk slaps on dollops of anthemic indie rock and pop in hopes that the lighters of your heart will be raised in accession with these two quirky little goofs who have finally found one another. Nauseating. [D-]