Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Lee Kirk Makes Mechanical Men Quirky

Awkward and quirky slow-paced films don't always find an appropriate category let alone an audience. But nonetheless, there are a handful of them that somehow manage to be enduring on their own terms.

Add the directorial debut of writer Lee Kirk to this stack of rarities. While The Giant Mechanical Man starring Jenna Fischer (The Office) and Chris Messina (Damages) was billed as a romantic comedy, it plays better as something else all together. It's a coming of age story about two people who happen to be in their 30s.

The Giant Mechanical Man captures the confusion in being confused about life. 

Janice had the perfect job, considering where she was in life. She worked as a temp, quietly hoping that one day she'll stumble into something that makes sense as a career. But when it never does, she finds herself drifting through life aimlessly — enough so that the temp employers take notice and complain.

Tim already knows what gives him a sense of purpose, even if it doesn't measure up to how most people define fulfillment. As a self-employed silver-painted mechanical man street performer on stilts, he hopes his parody of man will brighten the lives of passersby who feel trapped in a civilized rut.

Janice and Tim meet each other at the Fillmore Park Zoo, where both of them apply after being forced to find new jobs — Janice after she is fired by the temp agency and Tim when his girlfriend leaves him. Neither job is glamourous, but it does provide the mechanism for both lost souls to find solace in each other's non-judgmental solitude.

The juxtaposition of being different in a world of sameness.

The minor conflict in the story plays out when Janice's  (who is adopted) sister Jill (Malin Akerman) and brother-in-law Brian (Rich Sommer) attempt to play matchmaker by introducing Doug (Topher Grace), a self-important, self-help author who specializes in the art of idle conversation. Jill thinks pairing Janice with Brian might transform her sister from a nice wallflower into a personable conversationalist while potentially hooking her up with someone who is ambitious and at least moderately successful.

While some criticized writer-director Kirk for not making Doug a credible threat to the developing relationship between Janice and Tim, it seems clear enough he intended the conflict to be one of contrast, not the typical romantic comedy love triangle. Instead, Doug merely represents the faux trappings of how everyone else defines success and Grace plays that character with a tremendous zeal for being annoying.

Others dinged the film for being a celebration of aimless and underachieving adults, but it's difficult to size it up that way. When Janice is promoted at the zoo, she is as genuinely happy to have found something worthwhile as she is pleased to have found someone. That doesn't fit the anti-work stereotype. It's something else.

The film celebrates people who won't settle for other people's definition of happiness. They aren't asking for anything (although Janice does temporarily move in with her sister), but Tim and Janice are two remarkably fragile people who haven't figured how to be comfortable in their own skin. And this is what also makes the film as sad as it is quirky, but never really a comedy.

That's not to say the film is perfect. The pacing is even and slow, never finding any cinematic peaks despite memorable and bemusing performances that are captured in a well-shot directorial debut. Most missed opportunities seem to revolve around the script, which could have made Janice the principal protagonist instead of telling two stories at once. Kirk also never really gives any clarity to why both characters dream about losing their teeth (although Janice's brother-in-law happens to be a dentist).

A couple of graphs about writer-director Lee Kirk.

Kirk has every right to be proud of The Giant Mechanical Man as a directorial debut, along with writing a story with a character that his wife, Fischer, could play so perfectly. It's certainly good enough for people to look at Kirk as more than a scriptwriter.

Kirk has worked as a bit actor and lesser-known scriptwriter in Hollywood with several short film credits and one play, Happy Sad Sucker. One of his best received features was The Man Who Invented The Moon (2003), which also happened to be the directorial debut of fellow DePaul University graduate John Cabrera.

The Giant Mechanical Man Tips 4.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

The Giant Mechanical Man may never win over the masses at the box office, but it may mark an uptick in Kirk's career. He has always had potential as a writer and this film showcases his talent as an aspiring director. It's a good flick for people who appreciate quirky and hard-to-categorize indies with sharp performances.

The Giant Mechanical Man can be rented or pre-ordered at iTunes. Amazon also has The Giant Mechanical Man (2012 Festival VOD) available as a rental. The budget for the film was well under $1 million. What it has instead is a genuineness to it. It's a nice touch, given that is what the film is about.
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