The big concept within Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal is clever enough that the movie might’ve rested on it alone. I mean, I can’t remember the last time I saw a film about a woman who steps into a kiddie park in her hometown and causes a giant reptilian monster to emerge in South Korea. So it’s got that going for it. But once Colossal sets its conceptual hook, it pushes its zany premise into authentically uncomfortable territory. It’s actually about something.
The woman in question is Gloria (Anne Hathaway), a frazzled millennial at loose ends. Scolded by her boyfriend (Dan Stevens) about her incorrigible partying, she moves out of their New York apartment and back to her parents’ house in a town upstate. She quickly finds drinking buddies, reuniting with an old schoolmate, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), and his pals Garth (Tim Blake Nelson) and Joel (Austin Stowell). Oscar owns a tavern, so they have a place to hang out and get blitzed. The issues that stalk around this situation are not exactly unfamiliar from the world of the indie picture. Can Gloria cut down on her drinking? Is Oscar as cool as he seems to be, and will he and Gloria get together? Will Gloria’s flirtation with the handsome Joel mess up what appears to be a possible match with Oscar? And furthermore, isn’t it wonderful that Gloria might find her true self by returning to her small-town roots?
Happily, these tired questions are only the jumping-off point. Things change just a tad when Gloria awakens from a hangover one afternoon and hears that a giant monster has stomped around Seoul. We rarely see giant monsters attacking Asian cities outside Godzilla pictures, and we certainly do not see them in indie flicks. As if that weren’t disconcerting enough, Gloria comes to realize that—inexplicably, but undeniably—her own actions appear to be dictating the monster’s rampages.
This may be the time to ask: Who is Nacho Vigalondo? The Spanish writer/director made a splash with Timecrimes (2007), a brilliant example of the time-travel subgenre, full of storytelling games and witty paradoxes. A couple of subsequent features didn’t live up to expectations, but Colossal is the work of an ingenious filmmaker who understands that anything is possible on a movie screen, as long as the impossibilities conform to their own internal logic. We don’t understand how Gloria could be manifesting herself as a skyscraper-sized lizard halfway across the world, but we can guess it is somehow connected to her problems with alcohol and men, and the need to get those issues resolved. And yet nothing is cut and dried—she might still be a screw-up when the movie cuts to black at the end (a hilarious curtain-dropper, by the way).
Vigalondo lands many of his punches by playing the expectation game: what we expect from a character-driven indie, what we expect from a monster movie. The casting works similarly; Hathaway’s image as America’s agreeable big sister is poked and prodded here, to useful effect. (Kudos to the film’s hair stylist. Hathaway’s bangs are a fine character touch: Are they hip? Are they dorky? Who knows?) Sudeikis comes on at first like the kind of beery bro in an untucked flannel shirt who figures so prominently in truck commercials; then the film takes that Regular Joe image and shows how very close it is to out-and-out creepdom.
This matters because Colossal is a movie about women and men, a feminist film in which the heroine is nobody’s ideal role model. If it doesn’t quite make the top tier of genre pictures, it’s because something’s a little fuzzy around the edges—the movie doesn’t have the hard snap of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, for instance, where every scene crackles into the next. But when Gloria reverses the 80-year-old vision of King Kong holding a woman in his huge paw, it’s a great moment in cinema: a gender switcheroo that’s both funny and long overdue. Colossal, Rated R. Opens Fri., April 14 at the Egyptian and Guild 45th.