For a first-time filmmaker, Lee Kirk sure knows how to pick his establishing shots. He opens The Giant Mechanical Man, his alternative rom-com debut, with quaint stills of a gray, generic city; a collection of well-worn art supplies; and a hanging silver suit, whose precise pairing with a bowler hat plainly evokes René Magritte’s The Son of Man. Giving you his movie in three nutshells, Kirk introduces an archetypal urban fantasy centered on a romantic artist, whose signature act as an anonymous curbside robot makes him a walking commentary on the lost millions devoted to a grind. So much of Kirk’s triumph is in the telling—in his handling of tone, tableaux, and acting talent. A lesser director would have turned his flawed script into a giggly, spiritless romance of the week, and missed by a mile the sweet fable of broad strokes the film thankfully became. There will surely be detractors who’ll scold the movie’s simplification of unemployment woes, which it largely glazes over amid its mildly magical sweep. But The Giant Mechanical Man isn’t a recession-response film. It’s a simple story of simple people intentionally told in simple terms, and the only issues with which it’s concerned are those of pure personal connection.
There’s something highly endearing about the directness of the movie’s charm, which curbs protagonist faults at awkwardness and inertia, and deliberately paints antagonists as caricatured grotesques. It’s a story of metropolitan types, from the ill-behaved rich schmuck to the over-caffeinated, bubble-dwelling housewife, and from the start, it’s clear it’s also about how two of those types will inevitably meet, their paths converging on a fateful stretch of sidewalk. Janice (Fischer) is a temp whose undefined inadequacies get her fired from her agency, and Tim (Chris Messina) is the titular metallic mime, whose girlfriend (Lucy Punch) finally flees when his routine of face-painting and stilt-walking proves too unpromising. Certain films pique your interest as to their inspirational origins, and in press notes, Kirk says his love of Chicago street thespians led to the notion of only one person understanding another’s art. Janice is your average rudderless underperformer, and Tim is the only person available for consolation, his message assuring that the “shoulds” Janice blindly strives for don’t mean much anyway. The film has a beneficial, built-in dramatic device, for by the time Janice meets Tim out of character, when both take last-ditch jobs at a zoo that’s markedly tamer than their everyday habitat, he knows her face but she doesn’t peg him as her lofty tin man, who bewitched her when they were still perfect strangers.
The moment these two characters first gaze at each other, it almost breaks your heart, and Fischer and Messina have such wonderfully winning chemistry that their scenes together give the movie all the sincerity it needs. Each settles with perfect ease into the other’s presence, and each seems hugely respectful of the characters’ growing bond. You won’t find an outraged response to deception between these two, and you won’t see an all-is-lost peak result in a sniffly reconciliation. Theirs is a relationship just beginning, and though a flash-forward end-credit montage forces too much of a good thing, it’s a relationship worthy of big, goofy smiles. The movie’s biggest missteps are the things it employs to thwart the romance, such as Doug (Topher Grace), an over-the-top self-help author Janice’s sister (Malin Åkerman) insists that she date. A dreadful communicator who pushes the drivel manual How to Have Winning Conversations, Doug ably symbolizes the problem of discourse as one more packaged commodity, but from his Hall & Oates hair to his Frank Mackey finger-pointing, the whole creation is far too shrill, even for this colorful fairy tale. Elements fare better when they hew closer to simplicity, which is never better illustrated than when Janice and Tim first chat over lunch at the zoo, and in very few words, express clearly that dire straits can trim people down to a common goodness.