The Giant Mechanical Man (2012) is a charmer, a flyweight romantic comedy that is at its best when you resist its insistence that you take it seriously and think deeply about it. Doing that, it shows you its flaws, but if you are able to overcome its claims of being poignant it makes for a pleasant experience.
The movie stars Chris Messina as Tim, the titular mechanical man. He spends his mornings making himself up in silver paint, he puts on a silver suit with six-foot pants that cover his stilts, and he stands in subway stations and parks pretending to be a robot. He moves only when people put money in his case then he jerks and pivots as if he were not imbued with fluid human motion. He wants to inspire people to examine their lives, to see that they are the real robots. People walk by him without even looking.
The pay for automaton-impersonation is not what it once was, and Tim’s life is mainly buoyed by his girlfriend Pauline (Lucy Punch), who has had just about enough of supporting him. When they breakup, he is defeated and gives up the trade, opting to interview at the zoo for a custodial job. After listing the position’s responsibilities, the interviewer discloses that it also includes some toilet cleaning. “It’s all cleaning toilets at this point,” Tim sighs.
Into Tim’s world drifts Janice (Jenna Fischer), a similarly aimless temp, who finds that her gigs get more temporary all the time. She ends up at the zoo as well, selling concessions. Previously, she had been strangely drawn to Tim’s mechanical man, but she doesn’t recognize him without the make-up. As coworkers, they are attracted to each other, but Pauline resurfaces in Tim’s life, and Janice’s sister Jill (Malin Akerman) has her set up with a cheesy self-help author Doug (Topher Grace), who Janice can’t stand, but she has talked herself into him because he’s a professional success and she’s not.
When the movie is working, it’s a smooth and delightful romance. It’s on the nose and obvious and a little frustrating that these two take so long to realize they are good together, especially when the reasons they stay apart are pretty flimsy, but their courtship is sweet in its simplicity and is a satisfying story. Messina is a likeable sourpuss who has the ability to pull off the latent goofiness of his existence while commanding that we take him seriously. Fischer is just as personable but is slightly wasted by being made to rehash the worst parts of her role on TV’s The Office, that of quietly internalizing the weirdos around her.
The Giant Mechanical Man goes to great, often irritating, lengths to draw its heroes as the sane ones in an insane world. Unfortunately the lines it draws are far too broad, and Messina and Fischer spend too much time squinting quizzically and reacting incredulously to the buffoons, schmucks and fools who have been deemed successes. In the movie’s worldview, only vacant yuppies and defrauding hacks are valued, and thoughtful, considerate souls like Tim and Janice have to struggle for the scraps. I suppose I can get behind this worldview but the blanket representations undercut the movie’s credibility and are cheap. Grace’s hilarious turn as the smarmy author, while funny, is still a cartoon, and the movie’s sweet, truthful thread about eccentrics and dreamers coming together is damaged by it.
Along the same lines, the script lacks polish. Too much is left in because it sounds good even if it doesn’t mesh with the characters in practice. An example that is stuck in my mind: When Pauline breaks up with Tim, he uses an analogy about ducks that is lost on her. Moments later Pauline’s brother (Bob Odenkirk) discusses their split and relates to Tim a farming analogy that Tim doesn’t understand. The brother’s comparison sounds nice, but it just seems odd that the same person who would use one analogy would be befuddled by another in the same moment. Tim goes from being the foiler to being the foil for the sake of cosmetic dialogue (the script, however, does include a rebuke to a cinematic pet peeve of mine; it gives an explanation of how a person who works as a fake robot can afford a fabulous apartment. “It’s rent–controlled,” we learn, still a little dubious but at least it’s something.)
The Giant Mechanical Man is predictable, contrived and heavy-handed, and it seems to make ambition its target, but it’s also wistful and alluring. It won me over enough to put a little change in its case, even if I’m not convinced that the movie was imbued with fluid human motion.