Grinding its gears a bit in an attempt to achieve maximum quirkiness, “The Giant Mechanical Man” will meet most audiences’ standards for “charming,” offering up a gentle love story between committed nonconformists, as well as solid performances by well-known commodities Chris Messina (“Damages”) and Jenna Fischer (“The Office”). Helmer-writer Lee Kirk’s deliberately offbeat romance, a vehicle for wife Fischer, will undoubtedly win friends through its cockeyed-optimistic view of romance, spelling a respectable yield for this low-budget quasi-comedy.
Janice (Fischer) is a likable sad sack with a low tolerance for idiots, making her an improbable match for Tim (Chris Messina), who works, so to speak, as one of those street performers who act like statues. But Janice sees in Tim’s lonely metier a reflection of her own marginalization from normal middle-class life. Kirk’s governing thesis, that there’s someone for everyone, predestines a cute collision between two of life’s outsiders, who of course wouldn’t qualify as outsiders anywhere outside a movie about outsiders.
Fischer, who has made brave if not always successful choices when not in her long-running role on “The Office,” isn’t afraid to play Janice as unhappy rather than cheerfully resigned, plucky or valiant. Yet the film helps her out too much: In the temp job from which she’ll soon be fired, Janice meets people who are incongruously nasty to a surreal degree that contradicts the movie’s naturalistic tone.
Unable to pay her rent and seemingly on the verge of clinical depression, Janice unwisely moves in with her control-freak sister, Jill (Malin Akerman); that Janice is adopted, and Jill isn’t, is an angle that goes largely unexplored, but resonates nonetheless. Jill and her husband, Brian (Rich Sommer), don’t have a clue about Janice or anything else, which becomes glaringly evident when they fix her up with an egotistical self-help author named Doug (Topher Grace). Doug’s efforts to hide his self-absorption only make it more evident, and Grace’s hair-flipping delivery virtually steals the movie, even as it emphasizes weaknesses elsewhere in the story.
Tim is dumped at the beginning of the movie by his live-in girlfriend (Lucy Punch), and the viewer’s sympathies are not exactly with him. He never articulates convincingly why it’s important for him to play the mechanical man; he even gets a chance to spell it all out during a local news broadcast, and falters. Artists never want to explain themselves, of course, but characters in movies occasionally have to.
That both Fischer and Messina (“Damages”) are so likable keeps the pic upright, especially when Kirk maneuvers them into a place where they can safely be themselves: a zoo that serves as a sort of fantastical haven for two wandering souls. Life would be paradise, if only Doug would go away.
Tech credits are fine, although the establishing shots, suggesting Lower Manhattan, don’t mesh with the rest of the Detroit-shot production.