Movie Review: The Giant Mechanical Man (2012)

Detroit/Royal Oak Location Gem__9/10

Fittingly, I picked up this DVD via the Novi Library, Novi being a 2d-tier suburb of Detroit. Reading the jacket, the movie had some known actors and just looked like a literate, intelligent love story, which immediately brought to mind 500 Days of Summer. As I popped it in the player and looked at the cityscapes, I said, “Wait a minute, I’ve seen these buildings, these streets,” many of them in a state of decline. “Is this movie set in downtown Detroit?” Sure enough. Which the writer/director doesn’t explicitly tell you, but you slowly figure it out. And the zoo settings are, indeed, the Detroit Zoo, which is actually in nearby Royal Oak north of the city.

The movie begins with a man walking into what looks like a loft apartment or office in a city, then slowly putting his face on with paint, then his costume, a threadbare-looking silver suit and derby hat, long exaggerated bell-bottom slacks, concealing stilts that make him slightly taller than an NBA center. Tim (Chris Messina) is the Giant Mechanical Man, whose daily mission it is to walk about the streets, then stand still for long periods of time at the People Mover, Grand Circus Park, the Fox Theater, and other Detroit landmarks… where a (very) few people stop put money in his tip briefcase, for which responds with a sort of robotic expressionless motion sequence with hands, arms, and torso.

Aside from this occupation, Tim is a normal, young blue-collar guy struggling as most of us these days. He has a girlfriend who has been with him a while, but you can tell she’s not as thrilled or charmed by Tim’s preoccupation as she used to be.

In one of the scenes downtown where the Mechanical Man is present, we find a young woman named Janice (Jenna Fischer), a temp worker, who is going to her new job at the Detroit Institute of Arts. It’s the simplest of tasks she’s given, quite humorous actually, but later she’s being told by her temp company boss that they didn’t like her performance over there at the DIA—for reasons that don’t make any sense. She’s also in trouble with paying her rent on time. Like Tim, Janice seems to be losing her value to society and to herself.

Back to Tim, a local TV news features show reporter, looking for an interview story, arranges to have Tim come on the show. Which Tim does, somewhat reluctantly, but thinking it will be good public relations. And here’s how it goes:

Hal (TV interviewer): Why’d you choose to do this robot thing…

Tim: Why’d I choose to do it, Umm. It just happens to be my talent. And I feel like, I also thought, you know, it might be something to brighten people’s lives up.

Hal: Whaddya mean?

Tim: I guess I feel that modern life can be alienating, and it can be like you’re mindlessly walking through it. Like a robot. And you can feel lost. I guess I just want people to know that they’re not crazy, that everybody at home and everybody watching the show today, you’re not crazy. I mean life is crazy, right? Maybe if you see a giant mechanical man, you know, wandering down the street toward you, maybe that it could put it into perspective for you, you know?

It’s a pointed scene, revealing the whole refreshing theme of the movie: First, that truly a lot of us, who are honest and trying to make a clean and conscientious go of it in this world, travel to the beat of a different drummer. And that that is nothing to be ashamed of, indeed, it is something to hold to with pride. And if you do, good things will come your way. Second, much of the rest of the world who are not so conscientious and who merely ‘conform to what is acceptable’ will look at the different drummers as aliens… and be fearful and confused for not knowing how to look at the world through their own eyes.

As if to buttress the latter point, in the scene where Tim is interviewed on TV, the host basically ends the interview by telling Tim that Mechanical Man should do the Moonwalk or the Wave. Does he do that? Tim responds that no, he doesn’t do those things. It’s clear the host is anxious about this level of personal truth being expressed by Tim, so the host brings the camera and attention back to himself. Then you see the two news anchors—who have been visibly mystified by Tim’s statements—roll back into their comfort zone of mindless amusement at the host’s antics.

Tim and Janice eventually meet… at the Fillmore Park Zoo (this is the Detroit Zoo, which is quite a marvelous zoo by the way), where they have both found menial jobs. The rest of the movie is about whether they find their way toward lives that stay aligned with their inner truths and whether they can find romantic happiness. Notable performances by Malin Ackerman and Rich Sommer, who play Janice’s sister (Jill) and brother-in-law, respectively. Also Topher Grace, who plays a self-absorbed local author whom meddling, inattentive Jill insists on thrusting upon her uninterested sister.

This is simply an earthy, warm, and thoughtful movie about hope rising amidst alienation.

Metro Detroit is its perfect setting, too.

Janice: Sometimes I just feel invisible. And I heard someone say something recently, that it just takes one person, you know. Just one person to make you feel like you belong. To make you feel special. And I think that that’s true. I know that that’s true because… because I felt it. The other night, I was out with this guy that I work with and… I work at the zoo and… and anyway, it was only for one night, but it just… it felt different, you know.

Tim: I think you’re just… great. Because you know what’s so great about you? You’re real. SunFLOWerYou don’t pretend like you’ve got it all figured out, like everyone else walking around life. You’re real. You’re genuine, and you notice things, too. You pay attention. Like the monkeys. I don’t know. I look at you, and… I can see you. I see you. I don’t know. I just think you’re great.


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