What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done after drinking too much? Have you fought with someone who loves you? Sent a flirty text to the ex who you shouldn’t even keep in your phone? Posted something to social media so embarrassing that you wanted to crawl in a hole the next day after reading it? If you’ve ever been bad because of booze, you might sympathize with Gloria (Anne Hathaway), the heroine of Colossal, though the black marks on your morning-after ledger won’t come halfway close to hers: At one point in Colossal, she wakes up hungover from an all-night bender, glances guiltily at a news report about a giant monster destroying South Korea, and confesses to her friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), “I killed a shitload of people because I was acting like a drunk idiot again.”
Let me back up and try to give you a little bit of context for that moment — though, first, I offer a word of warning: The more I tell you about Colossal (which premiered tonight at the Toronto Film Festival), the more confused you might become. The premise of this movie is bananas.
Directed by Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes), Colossal starts with Gloria skulking back into her New York apartment after a night out with friends. Her fussy boyfriend (Dan Stevens) has no more patience for her party-girl antics — she’s got a posse of socialites waiting downstairs to recharge their iPhones and plunder his bar for mimosas — and he finally kicks her out. With no job and no place to live, Gloria moves back to her hometown to try to figure herself out, which is where she reconnects with Oscar, a childhood friend who throws her a lifeline by giving her some extra hours as a barmaid at the tavern he owns.
Sounds like the setup to some CBS sitcom or Garry Marshall rom-com, right? But Colossal continually zigs where you expect it to zag. For one thing, Gloria shows no real romantic interest in Oscar, the Good Guy Back Home these city-girl protagonists usually end up with; instead, she’d rather seduce his dim but hunky best friend (Bridge of Spies P.O.W. Austin Stowell). And then there’s the matter of the monster. The world is shocked by a giant Groot-Godzilla that appears out of nowhere in South Korea and stumbles through the city of Seoul causing mass casualties; Gloria is startled, too, though she learns about it a little later than most people, since she only hauled her drunken ass to bed that morning. “That happened, like, nine hours ago,” sniffs her awful ex, after Gloria attempts to repair their rift by commiserating over the world’s new supernatural wrinkle.
I told you things would get weird in this movie, and this is the point, after a few dollops of oddness here and there, that Colossal becomes one of the biggest whats that ever whatted. The next day, while studying footage of the monster’s second out-of-nowhere attack, Gloria watches the beast scratch its scalp — her signature quizzical tic. She’s certain that she’s got some kind of link to this monster, and the more its movements start to resemble her drunken walks of shame, the closer she comes to figuring out their bizarro connection: Every morning, as an inebriated Gloria trudges through a children’s playground near her home, she somehow conjures up a giant beast on the other side of the world. The parameters of the sandbox give her a mini-Seoul to stomp through, and while she’s in it, the monster will mimic any movement that she makes. (She even tries out a Batusi just to be sure, and Groot-Godzilla stuns Seoul by employing the same dance move.) She’s essentially Andy Serkis writ large, a motion-capture actor imbued with the ability to level a foreign metropolis.
To say much more would be criminal. Give me the first 10 minutes of any movie, and I can usually figure out the last 10, since most films follow a predictable three-act path of setup and payoff. Not so, Colossal: This movie is so unusual that it kept me constantly guessing. Even the ostensible theme that underpins Gloria’s monstrous arc — the need to sober up and take responsibility for your own actions — is a wiggly jumping-off point that makes room for all sorts of diversions. Good guys reveal themselves to be controlling dicks, bad girls somehow inspire a nation, and Anne Hathaway, playing a giant tree monster, becomes the star of a viral YouTube clip called “Seoul Monster Is a Thug 4 Lyfe.”
It’s tempting to compare Colossal to other movies because it’s the only way to safely chart a path to the film’s weird corner of the universe. Being John Malkovich will come up — the closet that leads to Malkovich’s brain must be a cousin of this film’s monster-conjuring sandbox — and I thought of Swiss Army Man, too, a movie that takes pleasure from doing things that a movie isn’t supposed to do. The film has a referential cinematic language that’s readily apparent: The monster-rampage premise had the braintrust behind Godzilla ready to sue, and at one point, while taking in Oscar’s kitschy bar, Gloria extols, “It’s like a fucking Wes Anderson movie in here.” But Colossal is on a wavelength all its own. Like its sometimes-polarizing star, it won’t be for everyone, but for a film fan who wants to be surprised and delighted, the movie delivers in its own sly way. This weird beast picked me up, dangled me dangerously, and finally set me down someplace I wasn’t expecting to land. I’m happy to report that it’s a good little monster.