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by Kathi Maio

ON FINDING HER INNER KAIJU

Turmoil and strife are nothing new to the fine citizens of South Korea. Just in the last year they've had to take to the streets and push for parliamentary votes and court decisions to impeach, ouster, and imprison (awaiting trial) their corrupt, conservative president, Park Geun-hye, along with her colluding cronies. Even Lee Jae-yong, the de facto boss of Korea's largest conglomerate, Samsung, was caught up in the scandal and jailed. And then there are the constant threats from their maniacal cousin up North. When chest-thumping and sword-rattling are manifested in missiles with possible nuclear warheads, it is understandably worry-making.

In short, all they'd need to make their societal anxiety complete would be if a giant monster or two magically appeared, crashed through the crowded capital city of Seoul, and then dematerialized, only to pop up again and again. And that's exactly what happens in a delightfully offbeat movie called Colossal.

But although Colossal does, at times, harken back to the classic kaiju monster flicks of the post-WWII years, its examination of monstrous characters and destructive behavior is actually much more human and intimate.

First, the film presents us with a perfect example of a hot mess millennial who has set a course of self-destruction. Gloria (Anne Hathaway) has devolved into an alcoholic party girl since losing her writing job a year back at a web magazine. Her boyfriend, Tim (Dan Stevens), has finally tired of his role as judgmental enabler, and throws her to the curb. With no money and no place to live, Gloria reluctantly returns to her family's empty homestead in generic small-town America.

On her first day back, she runs into a friend from elementary school, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis). Oscar is affable, helpful, and runs the neighborhood bar he inherited from his father. A bar may not be a good place for Gloria to clean up her drinking problem, but it's a great spot to renew an acquaintance and make a few new barhound friends like the disjointedly loquacious Garth (Tim Blake Nelson) and the good-looking but rather dull Joel (Austin Stowell).

Oscar offers her a part-time job as barmaid, but Gloria's life is little changed from her New York club-hopping. The only difference is that Oscar and his pals don't have the expensive haircuts and trendier fashions of her big city hipster chums. But the beer is exactly the same, and Gloria is still wandering home in the wee hours, drunk.

The only excitement in her hometown is the same media frenzy fascinating folks world-wide. It seems that a giant monster—briefly glimpsed twenty-five years back—has appeared in Korea, causing panic and wrecking parts of the city. Of course, this mass destruction half a world away can't have anything to do with Gloria. But as she devours countless internet videos, cable breaking news coverage constantly plays around her, and Gloria soon concludes that the Seoul monster is, in fact, directly tied to her and her actions.

It's more than a little bit puzzling and surprising! Still, at first, it also seems like a crazy lark. And then a sense of the seriousness of her situation dawns on Gloria. It is sobering. Literally. But the men in Gloria's life aren't necessarily interested in seeing her finally grow up. In this way, and many others, the indie dramedy story of this film never completely surrenders itself to the fantasy kaiju plotline.

One of the most satisfying things about Colossal is the way it keeps the audience guessing, not only about the monster but also about the very flawed humans in the story. Will Gloria get back together with Tim? Or will she find happiness with her childhood companion, Oscar, the boy who never left their suburban home town? Writer-director Nacho Vigalondo enjoys playing with our expectations for a familiar (if quirky) art-house rom-com story. But he has no interest in a romantic resolution for Gloria's little life issues. He wants to take her, and us, on a more interesting adventure.

Mr. Vigalondo is little known to most American audiences, but he is already an experienced feature filmmaker with a clear interest in the exploration of human character within the context of stories involving science fiction, fantasy, and technology. Timecrimes (2007) is a time-travel thriller. Extraterrestrial (2011) is a kind of romantic farce with an alien spaceship hovering overhead. Open Windows (2014) is a techno-thriller starring Elijah Wood that was designed to appeal to a wider, English-speaking audience. It missed the mark, and I suppose that many viewers—especially anyone who likes their movies to be all of a type—will likely consider Colossal to be a disappointment as well. From beginning to end, this film is a mash-up of themes, filmic conventions, plotlines, and emotional tones.

Above all else, it's about the characters. In Colossal, they are not always likeable, but they are unpredictable and compelling throughout. Consider, for example, the way the character of Oscar is revealed to both Gloria and the audience. At first he seems like a down-to-earth good small-town fellow. When he confesses that he was once engaged to a woman but she got "bored," we feel sorry for him. But gradually we understand how damaged Oscar really is. Jason Sudeikis exposes him bit by bit, and brilliantly, through Vigalondo's dialogue, but also through expression and gesture.

Although many people live happily and productively in the same small town where they were born, Oscar's personality clearly festered in his unnamed birthplace. He feels insignificant, and overcompensates in the one place where he can be the big fish in the small pond. And that is in the family bar, where he is, understandably, the dominant figure. It all seems benign and Cheers-like (and ironically, Sudeikis is the nephew of the famous sitcom's Norm, George Wendt) until it turns ugly. Did Sam Malone have a deeply disturbed underside? We never found out. But the filmmakers certainly don't hide the abusively controlling id of dear Oscar. And it is the reappearance of his childhood crush Gloria that exposes the real Oscar to his friends and to moviegoers.

"There's a monster in all of us" proclaims a poster for the movie Colossal. The question is how you deal with that exercise in self-discovery. For Oscar, that monster turns out to be, well, monstrous. For Gloria, discovering her monster leads to a much different personality trajectory. Expressing her kaiju actually allows her to become a responsible adult capable of caring about what happens to other people—even (or possibly especially) those continents away.

Anne Hathaway is one of those actresses who is often reviled by audiences and critics. I've never quite understood why. Is it her cutesy beginnings in movies like The Princess Diaries, or her tendency to play nice-nice young women who are much less interesting than they should be? In The Devil Wears Prada, her much put-upon publishing assistant was not only a bore compared to the tyrannical boss (played by Meryl Streep), she was even a snooze compared to her bitch-in-training competition (played by Emily Blunt, in a breakout performance). Likewise, in The Intern, she is a dot.com mogul who seems amazingly hapless considering her corporate success. Her older intern (played by Robert De Niro) constantly has to provide wise counsel, protection, and even a plain white handkerchief when she can't hold her liquor. Even her younger interns have to help save her from a personal catastrophe.

Still, except for the initial decision of taking the above-mentioned roles, I've never blamed Ms. Hathaway for the weaknesses of her characters. Her performances were good, within the goody-goody parameters of the parts she was given.

However, having just such an acting history might help explain why this actress eagerly signed on to play the title role in a small indie film by a foreign writer-director. Gloria is certainly no Miss Priss. Although not particularly likeable in the film's early scenes, you feel like she's simply lost confidence in herself to get and hold it together. Recognizing herself in Seoul's monster helps her set a more positive path. And having to resist (what filmmaker Vigalondo has himself called) "toxic masculinity" helps her revitalize herself, even as she becomes "more out of control than ever."

Back in her old hometown, she soon becomes aware that the kindly interest of her schoolyard pal, Oscar, contains a strong undertow of domination and control. And when her estranged love Tim arrives and says he wants to take her back, she finally sees that even his steadying support is more about keeping her weak and dependent than actually encouraging her to get healthy and regain her confidence as a professional and a woman.

Identifying herself as an ugly, lizard-skinned behemoth is an unusual but potent path to personal empowerment. Gloria realizes that even a monster can be a protector and a positive force in the world. That is a role she eventually embraces, without reference to a romantic solution to life's travails. Still, Mr. Vigalondo and his leading lady make sure to not paint too rosy a picture at the end of the film. Gloria's response to a bartender's question in the film's final moment is a classic—and a clear indicator that keeping it together and moving forward will never be less than a very complicated process.

Colossal is a marvelous examination of interpersonal dysfunction, the kind of thing we have come to expect from indie films about middle America. But even with giant creatures stomping about, there is nothing heavy-handed about the way Nacho Vigalondo explores that theme. The whiplash shifts in mood, the mind-bending use of fantasy elements, and the way seemingly predictable characters manage to confound our expectations about them should all keep the audience hooked. And the hefty dose of offbeat humor adds an extra charm to the proceedings.

If you missed Colossal in theaters—and many people did—I would encourage you to add it to your watch list. However you catch up on your viewing, this is one movie worth discovering.

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