Unlikable Characters Ruin an Otherwise Likable Movie: A Review of The Giant Mechanical Man
In outline form, Lee Kirk’s The Giant Mechanical Man is a good film. An indie that screams indie with its focus on plot, minimal set decorations, quirky characters, and a string of TV actors. It’s a decent movie—one you can sit and enjoy without cringing or sighing out loud at its clichéd plot or cheesy lines, but it’s hard to leave the movie feeling like you’ve learned something. It’s hard to feel like you can come away with some greater lesson, some underlying truth, and that’s because the characters are nauseatingly passive even when they claim not to be. At the end they say they’ve changed, but have they? And the greater question—do we care?
The story follows Janice (Jenna Fischer) and Tim (Chris Messina) both seemingly stuck but for different reasons. Janice struggles through jobs at a temp agency where the first job we see her at involves guarding an unlocked door all day to make sure no one goes in—a none-too-cute metaphor for her life. Falling on rough times, she has to move in with her overbearing little sister (Malin Ackerman) set on sticking her manicured-fingers into every facet of Janice’s life. Her love-interest/character-duplicate, Tim, is a self-proclaimed “artist” who dresses up in silver paint and stilts and stands on a corner in what is Detroit (but what the movie never claims as Detroit) staring at people and moving like the Metal Man that he is. Janice takes an interest in Metal-Costumed-Tim after seeing him on the street and listening to a local TV interview he does, although he never speaks to her. But after his girlfriend leaves him, he deduces as Janice does, that he needs to find a real job. Coincidentally, both end up at the local zoo. He does maintenance around the grounds with a personal preference for the polar bear exhibit, while she sells grape-flavored juice to children out of monkey cups. Dream jobs.
The strength of the characters is important in any film, but especially for an indie. Independent films can’t rely on A-List celebs to carry under-developed characters, or all the special effects and lavish sets to be the bells and whistles that distract the audience’s eye. Character development is so interwoven into plot that it becomes the framework of the entire film. The problem with this film is we just don’t care about the characters. Both actors are exceedingly likable in their TV-Alter-Egos. It’s Pam from The Office! It’s Danny from The Mindy Project! But despite Pam being a household name, and Danny a very well-developed character on his show, we still don’t like their characters in this film. We may think we do for a bit, but there’s no reason to and I think that’s because we don’t understand why they do what they do or buy into their claim that they’ve changed.
They are passive. They are stuck but we don’t know why they’re stuck. Janice gets fired from jobs and we don’t really understand why—why wouldn’t she try? Why wouldn’t she stick it out if it meant not having to live with her annoying sister? In an incredibly confusing plot turn, she accepts a date from an obnoxious Self-Help book author/pseudo celebrity, Doug (played by Topher Grace), who is a friend of her sister’s. Janice hates him, for good reason, finds him incredibly annoying, but does nothing to get rid of him. She stands by his side at dinners and movie dates even after she’s taken a liking to Tim (not yet knowing he’s the Metal Man) but why? Doug doesn’t open any doors for her. If he had a link to her dream job, if he was offering her housing or some form of stability, if she actually liked a tiny part of him, maybe she’d have reason to stick by him, but she doesn’t. He offers her nothing. What’s her sister going to do if she turns him down? What can she do? Sure, Janice’s sister likes him and is rooting for this to work, but would she really fault Janice if she just said she wasn’t into him? This underdeveloped character relationship is then used conveniently as it leaks into Tim’s character development, when he (dressed incognito as the Metal Man) coincidentally sees Janice and Doug out together and doubts her trust and interest in him.
This is just one of the many coincidences we’re asked to extend our beliefs for in a long string of them—the fact that she watches the local news that he’s on, that she crosses the corner he stands on as the Metal Man every day, that they both get hired in the same week at the same zoo. But, even when these coincidences present themselves, it’s still not easy for them to find a solution despite the cosmic timing.
Well not for a while, at least.
And then, suddenly, it is easy. Seemingly out of the blue, Janice tells her boss she’s over-qualified for her job selling juice monkeys and her boss says she’s right, what job does she want, and she tells her “Habitat Coordinator” and suddenly, voilà, she’s got it! And the audience is still spinning, and maybe a wee bit miffed that it was that easy for her when she doesn’t deserve it. One tiny bout of activity in a plagued-with-passivity character, littered with that-would-never-happen coincidences, and we’re supposed to jump for joy for her?
The characters aren’t complex enough for us to care. We don’t buy into the claim that Janice’s changed. We don’t really see that she has, and we don’t really believe that she deserved what she got because she once fought some punk for poking the monkeys. It’s not enough, and the ending suffers because of it.
But, hey, it’s Pam from The Office, right!?
Posted on June 25, 2013, in Film Reviews :: Young and Old, The C's and tagged Chriss Messina, indie, Jenna Fischer, Lee Kirk, Malin Ackerman, The Giant Mechanical Man, Topher Grace. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.