The Giant Mechanical Holden Caulfield


An eight-foot tall silver man stands frozen on the street corner. Many people brush past him, some glancing up, others oblivious to his presence. Occasionally, someone will stop. Sometimes a group of friends, sometimes a family, sometimes a lone wanderer. If one drops a little money in his bucket, he springs to life like a windup toy, limbs flowing robotically every-which-way, but his face remains forlorn.

His name is Tim. But when he dons stilts with silver clothes and a face to match, he calls himself The Giant Mechanical Man. This is his art and his passion. In a television interview, Tim explains that modern life can be very isolating. His routine is an illustration of that loneliness. Day after day, everyone buzzes around the city, caught up in banal, cyclical routines that provide no real satisfaction. We don’t fully understand why we’re doing what we’re doing, might not know what we truly want to be doing, and don’t know how to break out of our robotic shells. Everyone feels it, but we’re all afraid to talk about it. It makes us feel alone and isolated from everyone else. But Tim wants us to know it’s okay that we feel this way; that we’re not alone.

This is the premise of Lee Kirk’s film The Giant Mechanical Man. The film revolves around two such isolated individuals—The Giant Mechanical Man himself (Chris Messina), and Janice (played by the ever-delightful Jenna Fischer). It appears Tim’s speech on television aptly describes Janice’s own existential crisis. She’s so moved by Tim’s words that when she next sees him on the street, she tries to talk to him. Tells him she feels like one of the people he talked about on TV, that she has no clue what she’s doing and she’s scared. She talks to no avail, of course, because part of Tim’s act is not speaking—perhaps more symbolic of his philosophy. By not speaking, he illustrates how difficult it can be to truly converse with someone, to talk and be heard.

As fate would have it, Tim and Janice both apply for jobs at the zoo. Although Janice doesn’t recognize him out of costume, Tim remembers her and talks to her. The two connect over mutual feelings of isolation and feeling they are two of the very few genuine people in their milieu.

The connection between the two and their budding romance is sweet, but as a whole, the ideas in the movie feel adolescent. We all feel isolated at times, and many of us may have trouble connecting with other people. That’s all fine. The problem is that hollow, petty people populate the film’s universe. Aside from Janice and Tim, nearly everyone in the film is self-involved and refuses to listen to what anyone else has to say.

For example, Janice’s sister Jill (Malin Akerman) forces things upon Janice that she doesn’t want, such as a relationship with the creepy cheese ball self-help author Doug (played by Topher Grace, whose long locks make him look like a total goon). Janice’s body language makes it crystal clear she finds Doug repulsive, but Jill is so wrapped up in what she wants for Janice that she doesn’t see it.

Doug is even worse than Jill. Despite having authored a book on the art of conversation and holding seminars on the subject, he’s a terrible conversationalist. He doesn’t listen; rather, he talks about himself incessantly, particularly, his fame. If ever he asks Janice a question about herself, he interrupts with another personal anecdote before she can answer.

The most egregious perpetrator of this shallow, self-involved attitude is the television reporter who interviews Tim. The interviewer, as well as the anchormen and crew members, feel awkward about Tim’s suggestion that modern life is isolating. Rather than engaging Tim on the subject, the interviewer ignores Tim’s comments and suggests he does the moon walk as part of his act; even though Tim says that it doesn’t really relate to what he does, the interviewer persists, and begins to do the moon walk on air, making the entire television crew laugh. This of course, only supports Tim’s philosophy that modern life, is, indeed, isolating.

The thing is, the interview doesn’t feel realistic. If The Giant Mechanical Man was a real street performer and was interviewed on a morning talk show like Good Morning America, for example, I think Robin Roberts and George Stephanopoulos would be happy to talk to Tim about his point of view. I think many interviewers would be. After all, “the grind” and feeling strapped of creativity from routine is not a new or even rare idea.

Likewise, Doug and Jill are caricatures rather than depictions of realistic people. They’re completely flat. Sure, people exhibit varying degrees of self-absorption; but I don’t believe that most people are completely self-absorbed 100 percent of the time. And I don’t believe most people are so self-absorbed they cannot ever pickup on other people’s body language, or express genuine interest in another person’s life.

Considering that Tim and Janice are the only open, genuine characters, this movie feels like it’s of the Holden Caulfield variety—it espouses the idea that most people are phonies. I can’t even say that Tim and Janice have a Holden Caulfield complex, because they truly are surrounded by a world of insincere, inconsiderate jerks. Rather, it must be the film’s writer/director who has the complex. In Catcher in the Rye, we are supposed to see that Holden is wrong; while we’ll inevitably butt heads occasionally with people trapped in a simulacrum, not all people like this; and as we get older, people begin to better understand themselves, which better equips them to understand and relate to other people. Holden even seems to understand this at the end of the novel; it’s unfortunate when readers do not. I’m confident we all crave sincerity, and when others offer us the opportunity to be real and really connect, we eagerly seize it.

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