The Monster at the Bottom of This Bottle: Colossal
By Jesse Hassenger
Directed by Nacho Vigalondo
Opens April 7
“Did the monster come back?” asks Gloria (Anne Hathaway), the woman at loose ends who occupies the wonderfully unlikely center of Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal. Gloria is an alcoholic, or at least a problem drinker, and prone to blackouts, so she could easily be asking about whatever happens between the last drink she remembers and when she wakes up achy from falling asleep (which is to say passing out) in some odd position. But in this case, she is talking about an actual, literal monster. Mostly.
While King Kong preps for a forthcoming rematch with Godzilla, Vigalondo has made a smaller kind of giant-monster movie. There’s still some kinship with the Gareth Edwards Godzilla in the amount of time he takes revealing that this is, in fact, a giant-monster movie. First, it establishes that Gloria, unemployed in New York and let down not-so-gently by her boyfriend (Dan Stevens), must return to her hometown to recharge, think things through, detox, get a job—something, anything, though she doesn’t have any particular plans. With bangs almost past her eyebrows, dark circles under her eyes, and a nervous habit of squeezing at her hair (as if trying to wring away her hangover), Hathaway is sort of in Rachel Getting Married mode here. She’s starred in her share of romantic comedies, romantic dramas, and Garry Marshall movies—America’s Sweetheart (or Genovia’s Princess) type of stuff. But Hathaway is at her best when digging into characters who know that they might have or could have been sweethearts—and who often feel that anger, guilt, or loss eating away at them. That’s true of her performance in Colossal, which may be even richer than her work in the Demme picture. She makes clear the tics of a self-loathing heavy drinker while turning on the fuck-up charm.
Crashing in her mostly-empty family home, Gloria reconnects with Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), a childhood friend who has stuck around and now owns a local bar. He invites her out. He meets his drinking buddies (Tim Blake Nelson, Austin Stowell). They debate whether the bar has a “theme” or more of a “vibe.” And eventually, Gloria realizes that she has a bizarre psychic-mechanical connection to a stories-tall, semi-lizard-y monster terrorizing the streets of Seoul, South Korea. The concept, when it emerges, sounds like something out of a short film, and not necessarily a good one.
To say more might ruin the experience of Colossal, though it’s not exactly a marathon twists. It’s more of a slow burn that doesn’t tip you off to the fact that it’s slow, or burning. There are unspoken comparisons between big-city alcoholism and small-town alcoholism, and how its practitioners provide cover for each, and there are scenes of the characters gawking at news broadcasts covering the mysterious appearance and disappearance of this monster. These glimpses are convincing enough on a special-effects level, but the movie is more interested in scaling conflicts down to the proverbial playground level.
Eventually, Colossal turns into a sharp commentary on gender relations—specifically, on a passive version of male aggression that doesn’t have the courtesy to come right out and stomp on its victims. Sudeikis uses his insinuating charm both more quietly and more menacingly than the other indies where he’s defaulted to regular-wisecracker mode. Vigalondo has eye for behavior detail, like the way Oscar uses Gloria’s fuzzy recall to convert his offers (of free furniture, or more) into her requests. He also constructs a smart, ruefully funny counterpoint to the narrative of returning to your hometown, reconnecting with your roots, and receiving the love/support/help you need. Colossal suggests what you find there might mostly be entitled dudes, and maybe you’re pretty much on your own. That bracing, earned lack of trust sometimes carries over to the filmmaking; occasionally Vigalondo doesn’t seem to know if his audience will get what he’s going for, and overenunciates some of his thematic concerns. Maybe in those moments, he should have gone for more of a vibe. Mostly, though, this is a hell of a monster fight.