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Tribeca Review: The Deeply Insufferable 'Giant Mechanical Man' Is Quintessential Indie Film Hell

by Gabe Toro
April 24, 2012 9:01 AM
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There’s a special sort of Hell where films like “The Giant Mechanical Man” play, with the same ideas and tropes repeated around the clock, with the mistaken assumption that they’re endearing or, even worse, adorable. It’s the sort of picture that gives independent films a bad name, the type of film that invites jackholes coming out of “Transformers 7” to say, “I ain’t seeing that faggy indie shit!” In reality, there’s a very good chance “Transformers 7” could very well be less obnoxious than “The Giant Mechanical Man.”

Tim (Chris Messina) is precious. Tim lives alone with his put-together girlfriend (Lucy Punch, thankless), and when she takes him to a work party, he has nothing to discuss with anyone else. When one particularly crude guest fires off some casual profanity, Tim chastises him. When the same man brags about his $3000 television set, Tim goes on the warpath against this stranger’s spending habits. Never at any point does it seem that this may be none of Tim’s business, though it clearly embarrasses his red-faced girlfriend. As it should.

Janice (Jenna Fischer) is precious. She moves from temp job to temp job, and when she is let go for not being personable, she takes it as an affront. Clearly, these rude, unfair, indecent employers have no place wishing their hires to be attentive, sharp, friendly and pleasant. The painfully awkward Janice responds to this with long, ill-fitting silences, her face saying to onlookers on the train, “I’m broken.”

Tim is also special. His means of income involves dousing his whole body in makeup, wearing stilts and heading to the town square every day, to pose silently as The Giant Mechanical Man. With a tip in his box, he’ll whir and buzz with a deadpan expression, in what is apparently, as he explains it, a deadly serious parody of the working man. It is not a very lucrative business, though Tim explains to his girlfriend that it’s going to help him break out, it will help him become something more. Tim’s gotta be in his thirties by now, but there are no signs of him writing, painting, performing or creating any other art beyond his Mechanical Man. Where this performance is supposed to be leading is apparently a very special place that mere mortals couldn’t begin to understand.

If this review sounds judgmental towards these characters, it’s because it is. And that’s due to the film having absolutely no respect for its peripheral characters. There is room for films with one-dimensional characters who are completely secondary to the story, the special effects or even the music. Those are usually big, dumb blockbusters that aren’t expected to show any humanity towards anyone, treating people like chess pieces. But “The Giant Mechanical Man” wants so badly for you to like its central duo that it pitifully writes every other character as a one-dimensional tremendous jerk that couldn't possibly understand these very special people. Not only is that deeply manipulative, dramatically stacking the deck for our lead characters, therefore making any “difficult” decisions look somewhat easy, but it also violates the tenets of basic storytelling, in that you should have respect for each and every character. If you don’t have respect for all your characters, you don’t have respect for people.

Sister Jill (Malin Ackerman) lets Janice move in with her after she is evicted, under the reasonable request that Janice let Jill help remodel her life. However, Jill goes about this with the subtlety and self-awareness of a bulldozer, specifically forcing onto her the literature of Doug Duncan. Duncan, a deeply narcissistic self-help guru, has penned a series of books about being a good conversationalist, an area where Jill sees flaws in hapless, timid Janice. How Duncan has achieved this is by, predictably, talking over everyone else, and keeping the subject of his rants himself and his journeys. You’d have to be blind to not realize Duncan is a shitball of the highest order. Fortunately, the filmmakers made it even easier for the audience to dislike this douchebag by casting Topher Grace in a fetid turn that is noxiously self-satisfied and yet rancidly unfunny. And inexplicably, when a can't-stand-it-any-longer Janice finally flips her wig over her overbearing sister's cartoonish approach to help, Ackerman's Jill abruptly and briefly transforms into an understanding older sister, the narrative suddenly assuming it can have it both ways.

As Janice, Fischer is all navel-gazing sadness and twee silences, the type of “acting challenge” that involves long pauses and incessant whining. Fischer is a naturally pretty girl somehow pigeonholed by Hollywood as The Dowdy One, and anyone who’s seen her in a series of under watched indie films and TV’s “The Office” will recognize her greatest hits. As Tim, Messina is an irritating series of brooding tics and disapproving sighs. Though Tim is an “artsy” type, Messina can’t help but infuse this character with that vague sense of being a bit of a bully, and it adds an inappropriate edge to what’s supposed to be a romantic lead, as if a violent outburst that never happens is suspected at any moment. In other words, he’s probably perfectly cast as a guy who would go to a work party and insult and guilt someone for spending too much on a television set.

Directed by Lee Kirk (Fischer's husband, which gives you a sudden, "oh, now I get" forehead slapping realization of why this film isn't filled with unknown hasbeens as might otherwise have been the case), “The Giant Mechanical Man” is insufferably tone-deaf to any kind of relatively genuine human experience, instead treating the two leads as peculiar oddballs who just haven't found their footing in the modern world. Had Kirk and his script taken the pains to paint these characters as such, a rush of empathy would, no doubt, ensue. But the reality is that these two are thinly drawn caricatures, both appearing as unbearable dimwits where no such sympathy exists. And when anything remotely resembling real emotion fails to connect with the viewer (often), Kirk slaps on dollops of anthemic indie rock and pop in hopes that the lighters of your heart will be raised in accession with these two quirky little goofs who have finally found one another. Nauseating. [D-]

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  • Corey | December 28, 2013 11:39 AMReply

    Of course everyone else in the film is one-dimensional. Capitalism breeds insufferable, one-dimensional morons who have utterly represensible values which depends wholly on their willful delusions and total misunderstanding of ethics, economics and history.

  • JustAnotherGuy | June 23, 2013 1:10 AMReply

    I have no idea what any of you are talking about, I loved this film. Maybe that's because I haven't seen enough drama to be as jaded as this reviewer.

  • jingmei | September 29, 2012 12:33 AMReply

    Chris Messina was just kinda wasted by this film.

  • Not Kirk | April 26, 2012 10:16 AMReply

    "Fischer at least has personal and romantic reasons to be involved with this film, but audiences are unencumbered by such obligations, and should heed the title’s warning sign and opt out of Kirk, Fischer, and Messina’s fruitless little circle of pain." - Nathan Rabin THE A.V. CLUB
    About Grace's character: "His continued presence onscreen is one of the most transparently artificial obstacles to love in the history of rom-coms." - John DeFore THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER

  • me | April 26, 2012 9:42 AMReply

    actually there is no way you saw it in a nyu movie class because that screening never happened.

  • JB | April 26, 2012 9:20 AMReply

    This review is spot on. I saw this at an NYU movie class last night and walked out after 20 minutes when it became clear the film would never improve. It was one of the least entertaining and most cliched movies I've ever seen. To the extent that you come here to find out if you should spend money and time on a movie, the reviewer has served you well here.

  • me | April 26, 2012 12:15 AMReply

    does anyone actually take him seriously? i mean really. i don't even know who he is. and besides that the publications that matter don't listen to these kind of people.

  • Gabe Toro | April 25, 2012 12:55 PMReply

    You're all fired.

  • SAL | April 25, 2012 2:39 AMReply

    right back at you, A. does the fact that a filmmaker made a film justify the kind of nastiness that toro spews? you're telling me that the comments below are nastier than his "review" above, or the trash he wrote about revenge for jolly? what's he got against tribeca? whatever. the point is that toro is such a self hating person that his thoughts become irrelevant. he should at least do the reader a favor and preface each review with this disclaimer "Attention, Reader. When reading this piece, keep in mind that it was written by a man who claims to like movies, but in reality he roots for them to fail, as it makes him feel better about his own existence."

  • a | April 25, 2012 3:19 AM

    Right back at me what? "does the fact that a filmmaker made a film justify the kind of nastiness that toro spews?" Well, his job is to review them, so kinda? "you're telling me that the comments below are nastier than his 'review' above, or the trash he wrote about revenge for jolly?" According to the comments, Gabe Toro is "filth," a "troll," a "moron," "homophobic," "talks a lot of crap," "maliciously spews hyperbole," "should be fired," and must "give good blowjobs" in order to keep his job." On the other hand, I must say Gabe's review looks to me like a typical pan of a movie (complete with actual arguments, no less).

  • a | April 25, 2012 2:08 AMReply

    So does the fact that Gabe Toro wrote a couple reviews with which you people disagreed justify this kind of nastiness? Hate to break it to you people, but you come across as far more horrible and hyperbolic than Gabe ever has. You're seriously calling for a guy to lose his job because he wrote a review you didn't like? Here's an idea: don't read his stuff anymore.

  • sal | April 25, 2012 1:18 AMReply

    i agree he should be fired. not just for his faggy comment, but toro just degrades the playlist into trash. his reviews are clearly a reflection of his own self hatred. do him a favor and force him out the door, as it's obvious he longs to be a filmmaker, not a lowly critic.

  • Jack11 | April 24, 2012 7:43 PMReply

    Let's be honest...nobody gives a rats ass what Gabe Toro has to say. His cynicism trumps everything.

  • Mandie | April 24, 2012 7:05 PMReply

    You're filth for using the word f***y. Didn't realize Playlist staffed homophobes. Gabe, you talk a lot of crap but this is a low even for you.

  • 88 | April 24, 2012 7:15 PM

    Wow. Is context completely meaningless? Apparently it's objectionable to use certain words in *all* cases, even if you're disparaging those who use them.

  • Greg | April 24, 2012 4:06 PMReply

    Faggy? Really? Grow up, Gabe. Playlist should be ashamed of having you on staff.

  • Gabe Toro | April 24, 2012 4:28 PM

    It's very clear in this review that I suggested "faggy" is a word that "jackholes" say. I do not approve of hate speech based around race, gender or sexuality.

  • Gabe Toro | April 24, 2012 4:27 PM

    It's very clear in this review that I suggested "faggy" is a word that "jackholes" say. I do not approve of hate speech based around race, gender or sexuality.

  • Gabe Toro | April 24, 2012 4:27 PM

    It's very clear in this review that I suggested "faggy" is a word that "jackholes" say. I do not approve of hate speech based around race, gender or sexuality.

  • a | April 24, 2012 4:27 PM

    Greg, can you not tell the difference between using a word sincerely and using it to quote someone else (in this case a stereotypical Transformers fan)? I mean, you clearly have no qualms about using the word when quoting Gabe.

  • Gabe's Nemesis | April 24, 2012 2:52 PMReply

    There is a special sort of hell where critics like Gabe Toro maliciously spew hyperbole in a concentrated effort to hurt box office rather than to provide genuine criticism. One can only hope that it is a hell that also endlessly plays small adorable and endearing films for said critics.

    Gabe, this article is not a critique, it is an elaborate trolling attempt. It's too bad indiewire sanctions such bullshit.

  • Raric | April 24, 2012 7:08 PM

    It's all the more apparent that Gabe gives good blowjobs. Otherwise, how is this moron still apart of the staff?

  • The Playlist | April 24, 2012 3:08 PM

    No, it's spot-on and I edited this piece and added a few thoughts. It is easily the worst film I have seen all year so far.

  • Brad | April 24, 2012 11:57 AMReply

    I am not going to defend this movie because I have not seen it. However everything you accuse this movie of being was exactly what one of the best movies of all time "Blue Valentine," according to you was guilty of. Every charater aside from Ryan Gosling, and Michelle William's Cindy and Dean were so one note and repetitive it was laughable.

  • moviegirl | April 25, 2012 2:05 AM

    I saw this movie at the Tribeca Film Festival tonight and it far exceeded my expectations. It's really good. Ok, it's not the greatest script of all time, but it's super charming and I really liked the actors and the feel of the film. The story really grew on me and by the end I was rooting so hard for it.

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