What do you do when you feel alienated from your own life?
That’s the key question being asked in Lee Kirk’s new dramedy, The Giant Mechanical Man.
If you haven’t heard of the film yet, you’re not alone. In fact, Mechanical Man only premiered a couple of weeks ago at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and, as far as I’m aware, has yet to score a wide release date. However, this case is unique in that Mechanical Man is also one of several independent films that are taking a new approach to film distribution by offering itself for rent on iTunes prior to its wide release. (Personally, I think it’s an ingenious idea that I hope continues to develop, especially for smaller films of this nature.)
As for the film itself, The Giant Mechanical Man follows the journeys of both Tim (Chris Messina) and Janice (The Office’s Jenna Fischer, who also serves as the film’s producer). Considering himself an artist, Tim spends his time by mounting stilts, covering himself with silver paint, and openly performing as a robot for the general public. When his girlfriend becomes disenchanted with his art and breaks up with him, Tim is forced to look for work and starts to rethink his place in society. Similarly, Janice’s story begins when she loses her job and is forced to move in with her domineering sister, Jill (Malin Akerman). Jill believes wholeheartedly that her sister lacks confidence and attempts to push her into a relationship with popular motivational speaker Doug Duncan (Topher Grace) in order to fill the perceived void. As a result, Janice becomes caught between her sister’s expectations and her own beliefs about self-fulfillment.
In some ways, both Janice and Tim have opposite problems. Tim’s art demands attention but people refuse to hear his voice while Janice appears to identify most with a small plastic figurine and seeks constant approval from others. When they take menial jobs at the zoo, both Janice and Tim’s stories begin to intertwine. Through their connection, they soon start to explore what makes life really meaningful while, at the same time, wrestling with their personal situations as well.
At its heart, Mechanical Man is really about struggling with a sense of powerlessness. Tim’s mechanical man is performance art and draws a crowd, yet he remains safely anonymous due to his make-up. Janice works hard yet lives under the thumb of everyone in her life, be it employers or family. Even the nature of their jobs at the zoo suggest an atmosphere of fading into the background. (For example, although they are ever present amongst zoo patrons, they go relatively unnoticed by those who came to view something else.) Invisible, Tim and Janice live in a silence imposed upon them by their friends, family, and society at large. They are the ones who don’t exist.
One poignant example of this comes when a reporter takes note of Tim’s performance as the mechanical man and invites him for a televised interview. Excited by the opportunity to share the vision and purpose for his art with others, Tim becomes frustrated when the reporter deflects from his candidness in order to speak about his dance moves. In other words, despite the fact that Tim is willing to bare his soul to the world, he finds himself muted by a culture that wishes to sweep his heart into the background.
With this in mind, Mechanical Man also heavily emphasizes the search for wholeness. Both Janice and Tim are people who seek meaning in their lives yet find themselves stifled by the expectations of others. In the majority of their encounters with people, they are pressured to believe that they must fill their void with success, relationships or simply “confidence.” This notion is best exemplified through the character of Doug. The author of several self-help books, Doug is worshiped by his adoring fans and appears fully satisfied with himself (literally). Nevertheless, Doug’s ramblings contrast with Janice’s groundedness, causing him to appear vapid and empty despite his notoriety. There’s no question that both Janice and Tim are realistic in their beliefs insofar that they understand their need for work to survive. They simply do not wish to be limited by this view of success. They seek a sense of completeness and purity to life that appears distant from them.
As a Christian, it’s here that I most connect with this story. Living within a culture that attempts to satiate our natural human desire for wholeness with financial success and relationships, one can easily lose sight of a sense of humanness, creating feelings of isolation amidst the chaos. Only by seeking a clearer understanding of God and his relationship to our world and ourselves can we begin to rediscover the true nature of our own humanity. It is here that we experience true wholeness, regardless of whether or not society considers us powerful. (Besides which, that recognition of our own powerlessness also puts us in greater position to be used by God as well.)
Having said this, it’s true to say that The Giant Mechanical Man isn’t going to win any Academy Awards next February. With a fairly standard premise, the film operates primarily upon the level of romantic dramedy. However, its sweetness and authenticity won me over quickly and I found it to be an unexpected gem that was well worth the cost of the rental.
After all, sometimes the most satisfying films are the titles that you’ve never heard of.
The Giant Mechanical Man
Starring Jenna Fischer, Chris Messina, Topher Grace By Steve Norton
Rated PG-13 for some language Rating: ***1/2 (out of 5)
Official Selection: 2012 Tribeca Film Festival
Currently available on iTunes