Coming-of-age movies used to be the province of characters in their teens or twenties. The fact that so many recent indies focus on overeducated, underemployed thirtysomethings struggling to “figure out life” may say something about the times: dwindling economic opportunities, shifting concepts of youth, the protraction of adolescence by a generation unwilling or unable to grow up.
Or maybe it just says something about the experiences and concerns of people with the resources to make independent films. The Giant Mechanical Man certainly evinces no interest in making a grand statement about the zeitgeist. Its protagonists want something better but don’t know what it is or how to get it. Janice (Jenna Fischer) has trouble keeping even the least demanding temp jobs, like the one where she has to guard an empty closet in a museum, while Tim (Chris Messina) dutifully puts on stilts and silver face paint every day to follow his hapless calling as the street performer of the film’s title. Janice eventually has to move in with her sister and brother-in-law, who keep trying to set her up with a smarmy self-help guru. Chris is discovered by a TV newscaster only to suffer through a disastrous interview shortly after his girlfriend walks out claiming she never believed in him.
When the two lost souls end up working at the same zoo — she selling juice while wearing a gorilla hat, he sweeping up coins in the fountain — they find they’re kindred spirits. There is little conflict to keep them apart, and The Giant Mechanical Man stumbles badly in its last third when it attempts to whip up a little dramatic tension. Along the way, this sweet, erratic, and somewhat sleepy film registers some comic surprises and thoughtful observations amid its clichés of not-so-youthful drifting.
Fischer (who co-produced the film) and Messina make an appealing pair; their scenes together have the tender charm of two hopeless romantics connecting. A strong supporting cast of comic talent — including Malin Akerman, Rich Sommer, Lucy Punch, and (briefly) Bob Odenkirk — is given little to do, and Topher Grace’s broad performance as the obnoxious, clueless motivational speaker was probably funnier to watch on the set than on the screen, where it clashes with the otherwise low-key tone.
The film was written and directed by Lee Kirk, Fischer’s real-life husband. Kirk’s script contains promising shards of deadpan humor with a slightly absurdist edge, especially in the early scenes depicting Janice’s temping misadventures and Tim’s self-delusion. But too often the situations — whether comic or dramatic — feel underdeveloped, instead of heightened into revelation or at least discomfort. Like its characters, the film drifts into aimlessness and dejection, a sort of low-stakes, middle-class anomie. The Giant Mechanical Man endorses uniqueness but shows little originality in its choice of satirical targets: the self-help movement, corporate douchery, and the indignities sensitive souls suffer in a world that fails to recognize how special they are. Ultimately, its insights are too conventional and its perspective too narrow to shed much light on the experiences of individuals, let alone society at large.