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colossal

The “can’t-go-home-again” movie has a checklist which is pretty closely adhered to.  Disruption of life in big city?  Check.  Reluctant retreat to rural town?  Yes.  Run-in with childhood friend who shields against perceived shame of sticking around with cynical wit and hollow complacency?  Indeed.

In terms of 20th century hometown dramedies, everything from Garden State to This Is Where I Leave You and, to an extent, Hot Tub Time Machine, explore in similar ways the unavoidable ennui that accompanies an unplanned or unwanted return home.  Inserting yourself back into the surroundings which served as backdrop to both the most carefree and self-conscious portions of your life is a prospect potent with the pangs and clouded judgment of nostalgia.  Since this collision of memories and ages is often discussed as one of prior potential and current plateauing, it makes sense from a story standpoint to manifest these sides as tangible, real world problems facing off.  One common tactic is the dead-end, compromised job the character has now as contrasted with the dream job they desired as a more precocious, less beaten-down-by-life child.  While that does rear its head a bit in Colossal, the latest movie from director Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes), the battle at the heart of this movie, though metaphorically existing between more abstract notions such as past and present, addiction and sobriety, self-and self-loathing, actually plays out as a literal shoving match between a giant kaiju monster and an enormous robot in downtown Seoul.

It’s at this point we’re obviously no longer talking about any The Family Stone-style cathartic karaoke scenes or sprawling Big Chill conversations on spoiled chances and regret.  Colossal stars Anne Hathaway as an alcoholic New York City partier who’s worn out the patience of her boyfriend, Dan Stevens.  Homeless, solo and unemployed (we learn she’s a wannabe writer but has been out of work going on a year), she retreats to her small-town roots, ostensibly to regroup and think things over before attempting to salvage that relationship.  Her character makeover hits an early snag with the appearance of childhood friend Jason Sudeikis, the smartass townie, possible former fling and, unfortunately for Hathaway’s plan to be on the wagon, proprietor of a local bar.

With her life in a bit of a death spiral, there’s little coaxing needed to hang out and grab a drink (or nine).  Sudeikis, predictably smug though also acerbic, has a few pals (Tim Blake Nelson, Austin Stowell) he hangs with throughout standard hours of operation and then gets properly drunk with in the back room.  Hathaway slides into this dynamic rather easily her first night back and when morning rolls around, air mattress in tow, ambles through childhood streets and a playground to her family’s essentially abandoned home.  She wakes with a startle, though not confusion, familiar to anyone for whom hangovers are a recurring theme.  I’m reminded of a line from Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, another story of homecoming to a poisonous relationship: “For once again I was able to establish the where but not the when.”  There’s a running gag of a crink in the neck and deflation of that air mattress, which works well with the concept of time gaps and blackouts, the stilted and episodic way a drunk experiences the world.  Indeed, there are hardly any midday scenes in the movie – just late afternoon fast-forwarding into evening with the help of a few beers, and then early morning stumbling and collapsing.

But when do we get to the monsters?  It’s after this air-mattress stumble home that we’re shown the devastation which was wrought on Seoul at approximately 8:00pm local time.  In short, and without spoiling too much of the fun, a large, pseudo-humanoid kaiju beast manifested itself over downtown Seoul and generally stomped around, causing serious destruction and injury.  With the help of the internet and some moment-of-clarity realizations, the gang deduces that Hathaway is somehow, in her early-morning stupors, crossing a particular section of a playground that leads to the kaiju’s manifestation and destruction a world away.  A nervous tic on her part and some deliberate body language choices settle the hypothesis: she is, indeed, the monster.

What follows isn’t the most conventionally satisfying story that could’ve been derived from the premise, but it’s always engaging and not too clean.  The movie embraces the idea, often referenced in works about substance abuse, of “the monster”.  A sparser movie might’ve tackled the premise novelistically, as the character’s soul-searching leads to a journey inward.  A goofier movie might’ve provided some needless goal for her to accomplish, either locally as herself or in Seoul as the monster.  What this movie settles on is somewhere in between – there is an acknowledgment of a drinking problem, but the real pathos and viewer interest evolves from the reveals of Sudeikis – whose character is not nearly as chummy as his first introduction and SNL legacy might lead us to assume.  The smarm is there, for sure, and the wiseass confidence, but a separate element emerges that keeps the story from entering purely into a benign fantasy world.  Much in the way someone might bristle at being considered a backup, a walking insurance policy for someone else’s potentially doomed relationships, so does the hometown kid who never got out.  They can be a comfort to someone who’s returned as a flailing mess, an any-port-in-a-storm point of reference as they recalibrate their compass.  But to that person, that sense of implied reliability, that perceived joy someone else would take in their stilted life, simply because it allows them (the returned) some measure of peace that “hey, someone’s still worse off than me”, to that person such reunions can be carnage.  And to its credit Colossal spends a worthwhile amount of time on the brackish personality traits that are churned up in the wake of Hathaway’s return.

But while the commitment to this dark and nasty development is appreciated, the whole enterprise never fully congeals.  Strong turns by Hathaway and Sudeikis keep every scene engaging, but you get the sense that overall this was a juicy premise that never received an appropriate fleshing out.  There’s a real nasty coming home story somewhere in there, just as there is a more irreverent magical-realist one.  When we’re with Hathaway in the park, we only get the monster through screens.  When we’re taken to Seoul, we abandon the people back in the U.S.  The Colossal we got is amusing, but you can’t help wondering if a better one lives somewhere else.

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