At least half the fun of “Colossal” is in the audacity of its concept — the very idea, you might say. If you had to mash up two movie genres, the low-budget indie comedy-drama and the high-octane Korean monster flick might be the least likely to crossbreed. What do hip one-liners and heart-sore putdowns have to do with giant kaiju rampaging through downtown Seoul?
A lot, it turns out, and very little of it predictable. About halfway into “Colossal” you may experience the novel vertigo that comes when you genuinely have no idea where a movie is taking you but understand you’re in competent creative hands. That sensation holds until you’re deposited, happy and a little worse for wear, at the end.
We begin with Anne Hathaway in what appears to be a bootlegged sequel to “Rachel Getting Married” (2008). Her character, Gloria, is a Manhattan goodtime girl who doesn’t realize the party was over several years ago, leaving her with a drinking problem and a prim British boyfriend (Dan Stevens, of “Downton Abbey” and “Legion”) who has had enough.
Exiled from their apartment, Gloria returns to her rural hometown and holes up in the empty house her parents left her. She starts hanging out with a goodtime Charlie she knew in high school; his name is Oscar, actually (Jason Sudeikis), and he owns a bar, which is not conducive to Gloria’s self-improvement regimen.
Cut to downtown South Korea, where a 300-foot-tall creature is regularly appearing out of nowhere, flattening a few buildings and people, transfixing the global media, and disappearing. Tellingly, this only happens when Gloria is in a certain place at a certain time a half a planet away. What’s the connection? That’s for writer-director Nacho Vigalondo (“Timecrimes”) to know and for us to find out. That the finding out is so bizarre, then funny, then frightening, then unexpectedly resonant is the pleasure of the experience.
“Colossal” eventually comes up with a vague sci-fi explanation, but we don’t need it by then: the movie’s working fine as both surface narrative and subtextual metaphor. If King Kong can stand in for nature’s animal Id wreaking havoc on modern civilization, and if Godzilla can represent Japan’s fear of nuclear destruction, why can’t a hulking CGI behemoth be a projection of a young woman’s rage and self-loathing?
The comedy comes when Gloria’s bar-fly companions — not only Oscar but a philosophical derelict named Garth (Tim Blake Nelson) and a sweet, handsome, dull fellow named Joel (Austin Stowell) — figure out what’s happening, and start treating Gloria as a kind of transnational marionette. Pay no attention to that identity crisis behind the curtain.
“Colossal” takes its baroque concept about as far as it can go; not everything works but enough does to keep you hanging on. The filmmaking is low-budget but confident, the performances confident but trickier than they seem. This is ultimately a movie about a woman reclaiming her self-respect, and Hathaway is sharp enough to play it for comedy and pathos, delusional thinking and angry recrimination. Gloria is skilled at beating herself up; the movie implies that this might have dire consequences for those around her and only wonders what that notion might look like if you extended it to the planet as a whole.
She might not be the only one projecting. Oscar seems like a nice guy, but nice guys can have their monsters, too. Sudeikis has parlayed his post-“SNL” career into a series of lightly cynical performances that have never added up to a lot, but here he plays sneakily against our expectations of how a Jason Sudeikis character should behave. “Colossal” keeps us off balance in ways that are occasionally clumsy but ultimately pointed; our inability to “read” the scenes between Oscar and Gloria — Is he a good guy? A creep? A protector? A stalker? — becomes as much our problem as the heroine’s.
The resolution of this little dilemma is both as ridiculous as anything else in “Colossal” and surprisingly satisfying on an emotional level, played out to an international audience and an offscreen chorus of Gloria’s and Oscar’s neighbors. Vigalondo extends our modern egotism and entitlement — the idea that my problems are the world’s problems — until it becomes the stuff of surreal farce, and then he brings it back down to size. He’s made a monster movie that reminds us the monsters are closer than we think.
★ ★ ★ ½
Written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo. Starring Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens, Tim Blake Nelson. At Kendall Square, Waltham Embassy. 110 minutes. R (language)
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.