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Genre-Bending 'Colossal' Mixes Monster Metaphor With Romantic Comedy

Apr 7, 2017
Originally published on April 10, 2017 11:41 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Anne Hathaway has made many rom-coms in her career but none that take a turn like the one in her latest film "Colossal." She plays an alcoholic writer who returns to her hometown where she reconnects with a childhood friend played by Jason Sudeikis and discovers that she's somehow linked to a monster terrorizing South Korea. Our film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: In the opening of "Colossal," a little girl at a South Korean park sees a huge Godzilla-like monster, only slightly goofier looking. Then a title says 25 years later and we're in New York, where a hungover, unemployed woman named Gloria, played by Anne Hathaway, wakes up amid the debris of a party and staggers home to her handsome boyfriend, who throws her out. So, you ask, what's the connection between a monster in Asia and a 30-ish Manhattan drunk a quarter century on? It's two different movies and two different kinds of movie.

What I like about "Colossal" is that the Spanish writer-director Nacho Vigalondo has an elastic notion of genre. This is a film that starts off as a giddy comedy, before plunging into a grim psycho drama about a woman's loss and recovery of power over herself and abusive males that also happens to feature goofy-looking giant monsters throwing each other around Korea. The link between these two disparate elements 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 dinosaur in a kiddie park, meaning I don't want to squash anyone but I have to provide some entertainment.

The bulk of "Colossal" takes place in Gloria's hometown, where she moves into her old family house that's 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 Jason Sudeikis as Oscar, a nerdy guy who clearly 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "COLOSSAL")

JASON SUDEIKIS: (As Oscar) So you don't remember anything we talked about last night?

ANNE HATHAWAY: (As Gloria) I got really melodramatic, didn't I?

SUDEIKIS: (As Oscar) Well I - told me that you weren't really on a vacation, that you've been looking for a job for a year and you've been living with your boyfriend, Tim, and it didn't work out. And since you didn't have any money, you decided to move back here for a little while. For the record, I figured out that you were broke on my own, so you don't have to feel bad about it.

HATHAWAY: (As Gloria) Oh, well, congratulations. Is there anything else?

SUDEIKIS: (As Oscar) I told you that if you wanted to give me a hand at the bar, you're more than welcome. You know, make a little money while you were staying here.

HATHAWAY: (As Gloria) What did I say?

SUDEIKIS: (As Oscar) You said, yes (laughter). Yeah. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked you when you were drunk. That's bad timing by me. I just - we were just talking...

HATHAWAY: (As Gloria) No, what are you talking about? It's such a nice thing to do. But, I mean, do you need help at the bar?

SUDEIKIS: (As Oscar) If this mess keeps going on, yeah. Yeah, I'll definitely need help at the bar. People have to drink.

HATHAWAY: (As Gloria) OK, I'll tell you what. I'll come to work at the bar if you agree that we clean up the western side.

SUDEIKIS: (As Oscar) All right, you're hired.

EDELSTEIN: That's an interesting scene for several reasons. First, the wing of the bar Gloria mentions is a ruin. And so the movie primes you for an upbeat let's-clean-up-the-mess-of-our-lives scenario that doesn't exactly play out. Second, Sudeikis' Oscar is right on the border between endearing and stalker-ish. Rescue fantasies are a staple of rom-coms, where unstable princesses often end up with nerdy guys. But director Nacho Vigalondo has more subversive ideas. 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.

Something's not quite right. As for the monster in "Colossal," it appears again in Seoul. The sightings 25 years ago were unconfirmed. And this time, it's 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, a riot in two senses given the pandemonium in Korea.

Then, things get dark, as we realize these giant monsters - there's one more that arrives - are avatars in a story of domestic abuse, addiction and buried childhood trauma. I wish I could say those disparate elements totally gel. Anne Hathaway is giving such a delightful screwball performance that when she turns dour, the air goes out of the movie and the pacing of the last sequence is positively 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 of "Colossal" so much that I forgive it almost everything. It 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.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. Monday on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how health care became big business. My guest will be Elisabeth Rosenthal, author of "An American Sickness," which explains how the pricing and billing of medical services, devices and prescription drugs became so complicated, even some doctors don't understand it. She's the editor in chief of Kaiser Health News. Before becoming a journalist, she was a physician. I hope you'll join us.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.