At the start of Colossal, a little girl in South Korea witnesses the coming of a Godzilla-like monster, only goofier looking so as not to be actionable. (The Godzilla people sued anyway, but they’re assholes. It’s a parody and an homage.) Then a title says “25 Years Later,” and we’re in New York, where a hungover, unemployed writer named Gloria (Anne Hathaway) wakes up amid the debris of a party and staggers home to her handsome boyfriend (Dan Stevens), who has packed her suitcases. He doesn’t just throw her out. He also gives her a lecture about drinking, idleness, and personal responsibility.
The connection between a monster in Asia and a 30-ish Manhattan drunk with a dickish boyfriend a quarter-century on is a mite unclear: It’s not just two different movies, it’s two different kinds of movie. What connects them is both a surprise and the movie’s very premise — which means, to avoid spoilers, I’m going to have to tread more carefully than a friendly Godzilla(™, schmucks) in a kiddie park. That is, I don’t want to squash anyone, but I gotta give you your money’s worth.
The thing to know is that the Spanish writer-director Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes) has a rubbery notion of tone. After that Toho-ish prologue, Colossal becomes a giddy rom-com of debauchery that slowly transforms into a grim psychodrama about a woman’s loss — and recovery — of power. Plus, a giant dinosaur fighting a giant robot in Seoul. It’s all over the map, literally and figuratively.
The bulk of Colossal, though, takes place in Gloria’s hometown, where she moves into her old family house, which has apparently stood empty for years. Literally empty: She buys an air mattress but is so drunk she passes out on it without blowing it up. Help comes in the form of Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), a nerdy guy who had a crush on her as a kid and now can play savior. He shows up with a TV set after they share a drunken night at the dive bar he inherited from his dad and offers her a job, which she accepts on the condition she can clean up the wing he closed off and make it special. Vigalondo is priming us for an upbeat, let’s-clean-up-the-mess-of-our-lives scenario in which Gloria and Oscar will slowly become intimate.
Rescue fantasies are a staple of rom-coms, where unstable princesses often end up with sweet dorks. But Sudeikis’s Oscar is right on the border between endearing and stalker-ish. Gloria’s all-night beer binges with Oscar and two dysfunctional pals played by Tim Blake Nelson and Austin Stowell are larkish — but also creepy, because these people are addicts in an emotional limbo. Although Hathaway does a lot of the schtick that Hatha-haters hate most — pulling faces, rolling her big eyes, showing off her flawless skin while pretending to be a drunk — she makes Gloria’s gradual feeling of entrapment very affecting. Putting a rom-com queen at the center of Colossal feels positively subversive.
As for the monster, it appears again in Seoul and is this time a worldwide news event. The creature is on TV — and looking puzzled. It scratches its head in a way that reminds Gloria of herself when she’s nervous and perplexed. That’s not a spoiler, since the film’s poster shows Hathaway and the monster in an identical silly pose, mysteriously in sync in their bewilderment. At first the connection is hilarious. Then we begin to realize that the movie’s giant monsters (there are two) are avatars in a story of domestic abuse, addiction, and buried childhood trauma.
I wish I could say those disparate elements totally jell, but a lot of the air goes out of the movie in the last third, and the pacing of the climax is funereal. But given the seriousness of the story — a woman battling her own demons as well as a violent male — I don’t know how Vigalondo could have lightened the tone. And I love the setup so much that I forgive Colossal almost everything. Vigalondo demonstrates that even the dumbest genres can be used to profound ends — not cheapening serious things but kicking them to the next metaphoric level. A woman finding her inner strength is inspiring. But a woman finding her inner giant monster who kicks butt — that’s just so cool.