Nacho Vigalondo’s monster dramedy is an intoxicating mix of the sublime and the surreal.
Monsters are all the rage lately. From King Kong to the flying jelly squid in Daniel Espinosa's Life (2017), theaters are filled with characters getting stomped or eaten. Nacho Vigalondo’s monster dramedy, Colossal, surpasses them all by providing the giddy exhilaration of discovering something new.
Colossal mixes metaphor, dark comedy, and tragedy into a powerful statement about the nature of addiction. Though it staggers a bit in the middle, this is a poignant film that never preaches, often inspires, and always fascinates.
Twenty-five years ago, a giant monster materialized in Seoul and took a leisurely stroll through town. This was before cellphones and YouTube, so only one cloudy photo remains to corroborate the hysterical eyewitness accounts of the destruction. The gangly beast is all but forgotten -- a myth conjured by overactive imaginations -- until it suddenly reappears in modern day Seoul!
Not that any of this Kaiju nonsense matters to Gloria (Anne Hathaway). She’s too busy getting drunk, blacking out, and ruining her relationship with erudite boyfriend, Tim (Dan Stevens out from under his horrendous Beauty and the Beast visage). After Tim kicks her out of his trendy New York City apartment that no real person could possibly afford, Gloria slinks back to her hometown and crashes at her parent’s deserted house. She reluctantly comingles with the townies, including an old school chum named Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) who owns the local tavern. It’s a pretty typical setup for the ‘girl goes home to find herself’ indie hug-fest… aside from all the monster stuff.
Sporting a haircut that looks like a hybrid between her geeky persona in The Princess Diaries and Cameron Diaz in Being John Malkovich, Hathaway is barely recognizable as the haggard Gloria. This is a woman who tells so many lies to cover up her alcoholism that the name of her alibi changes in the middle of the lie. She’s completely at the mercy of her own personal demons. Or, more appropriately, her own personal monster.
Once Gloria deciphers an uncanny link between her behavior and the rampaging critter in Seoul, Colossal transforms into something wholly original and mesmerizing. Director Nacho Vigalondo (Open Windows, 2014, Timecrimes, 2007) presents the kind of singular artistic vision that makes Hollywood producers extremely uncomfortable. Nothing is too bizarre or absurd as Vigalondo shifts moods repeatedly. One moment we are laughing as Gloria makes the giant beast ‘dance’ amidst a city of screaming citizens, and the next minute we’re cringing as she and Oscar spew alcohol-fueled venom at one another.
With care and patience, Vigalondo reveals the true game, and Oscar and the monster are merely pawns in Gloria’s fight for self-control. In the hands of a director with more mainstream aspirations, Colossal might digress into a heavy-handed ‘monologue machine’ in which each self-realization is telegraphed like a professional wrestling maneuver. Instead, we’re treated to something laden with subtext and subtlety; each layer prompting new questions with each delirious answer it provides.
Colossal swirls around the twin epicenters of Oscar’s bar and the children’s playground where Gloria and the monster commune each day at 8:05AM. Each locale is awash with comradery and insecurity; safe places where harmless games can turn instantly violent when the balance of power shifts. What starts as one sad sack’s quest for sobriety evolves into an emotional showdown between two damaged people inextricably linked by history and co-dependence. Sure, it’s fun to watch monsters fight in the middle of a teeming city, but the real pleasure of Colossal is uncovering those unhealthy links and replacing them with something meaningful.
One could argue that Gloria’s struggle for empowerment is one long extended metaphor, but that would be underselling the creative and dramatic flourishes Vigalondo so lovingly infuses into his story. Colossal is a puzzle, yes, but it’s not inscrutable or humorless. Vigalondo takes just as much pleasure in watching giant monsters dance (the news headline, “Giant Robot Taunts Business District” is priceless) as helping a troubled woman discover her inner strength. It’s an intoxicating mixture of the sublime and the surreal that works on every metaphorical and cinematic level.
Vigalondo struggles a bit with pacing, however, which becomes evident in the film’s sluggish midsection. As Oscar morphs into more of a central figure in the story, Vigalondo (who also wrote the script) temporarily loses track of Gloria. It’s not an insurmountable lapse, as he quickly regains control and charges toward a humdinger of an ending, but it’s slightly disappointing, given his otherwise vicelike grip on the thematic subject matter.
Plus, any scene without Hathaway is a missed opportunity. She is truly revelatory here, disappearing without a shred of self-consciousness or ego into this quivering mess of a woman. It’s not a flashy performance -- Warren Beatty won’t be butchering her name at the Oscar’s next year -- but it speaks to her dramatic range as an actress. Sudeikis, too, is proving more tolerable as a dramatic actor than his overbearing comic persona. He slips effortlessly between charming everyman and controlling monster, proving the perfect foil to push Gloria out of her malaise.
Colossal is a perplexing film that will likely reward multiple viewings. It tackles challenging subject matter with originality and an odd sensibility that never slips into preachiness. Think of it like a message film that refuses to spell out the message. If this review seems deliberately vague or lacking in details, it’s only because Colossal is a film best experienced on its own peculiar terms.