Lee Kirk's The Giant Mechanical Man is a melancholic romantic comedy that finds a bittersweet, quirky tone and maintains it largely thanks to a very talented cast and a tight script.
The movie stars Jenna Fischer as Janice, a thirtysomething woman who is, for lack of a better term, lost. In short order, she is fired from the temp agency where she occasionally works, gets evicted from her apartment, and can't seem to make a connection with anybody. Her few moments of comfort and solace come from watching a street performer known as the Giant Mechanical Man -- a guy who paints his skin metallic, walks around town on stilts, and acts in a robotic manner for money. Tim (Chris Messina) is the artist behind this particular character, and he finds great meaning in his craft.
Eventually, Janice finds a job as a juice vendor at the zoo, and Tim, dumped by his girlfriend, also ends up working there as a janitor in order to help pay his bills. They strike up a tentative flirtation, but their chance at happiness is threatened when Janice's sister and brother-in-law try to set her up with unctuous self-help guru Doug (Topher Grace).
Still best known for playing Pam on The Office, Fischer excels at portraying smart women who aren't proactive enough about getting what they want; her charm is in making shyness and insecurity appealing. Janice is certainly more deeply repressed than Pam ever was, and that allows Fischer to bring some drama to the character. Her final scene with her sister is full of pathos, but we want Janice to succeed so strongly that it avoids manipulation.
Messina makes Tim worthy of Janice's love. While Tim is sensitive to criticism of his art and suffers from bouts of self-doubt when he feels nobody understands what he's doing, he always believes in himself, and that confidence allows us to accept unquestioningly that he has that same faith in Janice; he beams with pride after she asserts herself during a conversation with their HR rep.
The muted emotions of the film might have been too downbeat and one-note if it weren't for Topher Grace's work. Doug claims to teach people the art of conversation, but his techniques, as they are hilariously detailed in a scene set at one of his weekend seminars, involve overwhelming the other person with stories about yourself -- egomania masked as joviality.
The movie also has a great sense of place. Kirk shot it in Detroit, and though his characters never say where the story is set, he makes Motown look like an actual place instead of a desolate, abandoned city or a crime-ridden urban war zone. In this picture, it's a big city that's fallen on hard times, but it's still a working and functional community with an art museum and a zoo and movie theaters and restaurants. The setting illuminates the central theme of Kirk's movie: It's hard to make a genuine connection in this life, but it's worth wading through all the difficulties -- be they emotional, physical, or economic -- to do so. It's a sweet film that aims for and achieves a modest poignancy. ~ Perry Seibert, Rovi