If we could do it all over again, I wish Jenna Fischer was never on The Office.
I wish she won't be forever remembered as Pam Beesly-Halpert. I wish my mind wouldn't always associate her with the color beige and sweaters a crotchety old librarian would wear.
Instead, I wish Fischer did what Parker Posey did in the '90s; star in every single independent film, ever. Of course, everyone fell in love with a then unknown Fischer because of The Office, but I really, really fell for her for her performances in a string of indies (OK, and Blades of Glory). She was fantastic in Solitary Man as Michael Douglas' daughter and as Sean William Scott's wife in The Promotion. But, she really left me jaw-dropped in last year's overlooked, A Little Help. She played a beer-guzzling widow who had to deal with her kid telling everyone his scummy dad died in 9/11, even though he didn't. It was one of the year's best performances.
This was the moment Fischer transcended the limits of an NBC sitcom and became a thespian's thespian.
In her new project, The Giant Mechanical Man, Fischer is Janice, a 30-something whose promising future seemed to pass her up a long time ago. She gets fired from a temp agency because she doesn't care about the work. She gets evicted from her apartment and is forced to move in with her matriarchal little sister (Malin Ackerman) and her husband (Rich Sommer from Mad Men). They seemingly have it all figured out -- including what's best for Janice right now. They try to set her up with a self-aggrandizing, dickhead, self-help author (a hilarious Topher Grace) because this could potentially be her ticket out of living a milquetoast life.
While watching the news one night, she sees an interview with a giant mechanical man who performs in downtown Detroit. You know, one of those robot/living statues you see in the city who are half-creepy and half-amusing. Covered in metallic paint and wearing stilts, he remains motionless until you drop a few bucks in his basket for a brief robotic interaction. In the interview, the mechanical man explains his craft; he hopes that people who live their life by going through the motions, aimlessly like a robot, will see a living robot and be inspired to change. Or something like that.
The robot is Tim (Chris Messina), another 30-something with no real aspirations other than to impact people with his not financially profitable art. He gets dumped by his corporate girlfriend (Lucy Punch) and is also rapidly trying to get his life in order.
Seeking purpose (and money), Janice and Tim both end up with jobs at a Detroit zoo doing trivial work that is beneath them... but is it really? In the sweetly cosmic way that their world works, they hit it off and unbeknownst to Janice, Tim is the mechanical man and the inspirational catalyst in her life.
There's so much backlash for the new HBO show, Girls, because people can't relate to a bunch of spoiled brats in their mid-20s who are finding themselves, feel entitled and would rather die than work at McDonalds. While the two characters in The Giant Mechanical Man aren't liberal arts graduates who rely on their parents for money, they are very much going through the same self-discovery, except they're about a decade older. And inherently more likeable.
These characters are fascinating and frightening. Like, they're in their 30s! Society says they should typically be settled down by now, maybe with a few kids and a nice job. They should have at least SOME consistency. Instead, they are blue-collar Bohemians who kind of just meander. Janice and Tim have much more to offer the universe, but they can't seem to figure it out, or figure out a way to make money doing so. Is that important? Isn't it important? Can't they just exist?
The Giant Mechanical Man is quietly charming and instantly memorable. It's no such much a romantic comedy as it is a romantic exploration through what existentialism and destiny means to a person living in 2012. Fischer continues to buff up her indie resume with another against-type performance and major hats off to Messina for simultaneously being a robot and a beanie-wearing struggling artist. This is one of those movies that snuck up on me hours after watching it -- forcing me to question my own existence as compared to that of Janice and Tim. I don't want to sell grape juice at a zoo when I'm 30. I'd rather be the robot.
I must also point out that as a suburbanite of Chicago who was has never been to the Motor City, in my head, I've been conditioned to think it's some sort of urban apocalyptic wasteland. But writer/director Lee Kirkland, who is Fischer's husband, has crafted a romanticized version of Detroit. He takes us to the zoo, swanky bars and restaurants, downtown, old theaters, weird and luxurious apartments -- I kind of want to visit. Kind of.
I guess Robocop was wrong.