Film Review: The Giant Mechanical Man

Small but affecting romantic comedy about two urbanites who only seem like losers.

The eventual mating of two lonely souls in the city of Chicago forms the warmly beating heart of The Giant Mechanical Man, a clumsily titled but winsome romantic comedy that quietly sneaks its way into your affection.

Janice (Jenna Fischer) is in her 30s, but still rather adrift in life, just fired from her temp job for being, as her boss tells her, too much like Janet on “Three’s Company” and not enough like bouncy, sexy Chrissy. With career advice like that, it’s small wonder that Janice feels alienated, a mood not helped by her married sister Jill (Malin Akerman), with whom she lives. Jill is bent on matching her up with a “winner,” i.e., Doug (Topher Grace), an arrogantly clueless motivational speaker whose basic chemistry with Janice is akin to oil and water.

Going about her harried yet listless day, Janice encounters a silver-painted street mime, the Giant Mechanical Man, a non-money-making persona adopted by Tim (Chris Messina), whose fiancée (Lucy Punch) is fed up with him pursuing an art form which doesn’t help pay the bills. Together, Janice and Tim find work at the zoo, and each other as well.

Writer-director Lee Kirk also happens to be Fischer’s husband and this ingratiatingly offbeat, bittersweet vehicle makes quite a lovely gift for his bride. His unobtrusively sensitive and funny script takes healthy potshots at the toxic yuppies and unfeeling careerists who surround our central couple. With its comforting zoo setting for this likeably misfit couple, the film keeps recalling the beguilingly innocent charm of the 1933 Zoo in Budapest, directed by Rowland Brown, which featured a waifish Loretta Young as a runaway orphan girl who finds safe haven in the arms of zookeeper Gene Raymond, amid all the cawing and roars of the city menagerie.

As we know from “The Office,” Fischer is expert at conveying an Everygirl mix of relatable human emotions, and while she may lack Loretta Young’s blindingly radiant young beauty, she makes Janice deeply appealing nevertheless. We’ve all been where she’s been at some lost point in our lives, and she delicately gains our sympathy without obnoxiously underlining Janice’s loser qualities. Messina, as usual, is also very ingratiating, so much so that one can even get over a lifetime aversion to mimes and actually smile at his corny robotic routines. Tim is bullishly wrongheaded in his refusal to compromise his ideals and, as infuriating as that is to those around him, you can’t help rooting for the stubborn schmuck. The two share a lovely, happy chemistry and you believe it when she tells him, “You're real, you're genuine—not like all the other people walking around like they have it all figured out.”

Grace, in a disfiguring long wig, revels in Doug’s windbag pomposity, but I wish better use had been made of his crack comic timing than this too-easy, shallow cartoon of a role. Akerman and Punch are spot-on as variants of that typical urban, hardcore professional woman who fanatically insists on having all her ducks in a row at all times.