Writer/director Sophie Barthes’ depressing 2009 comedy “Cold Souls” is a tough cinematic nut to crack. Although my opinion of the film is overwhelmingly positive, the concept is simply too bleak and bizarre to recommend to casual viewers in search of a “good movie.” To be fair, a dark comedy masquerading as a science fiction thriller is a tough sell in any market, especially once you introduce the same “actor playing himself” gimmick utilized in Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze 1999 masterpiece “Being John Malkovich”. As long as you know precisely what you’re getting into, the picture is fantastic, both narratively and visually.
Paul Giamatti stars as, well, Paul Giamatti, an accomplished American actor who is currently having great difficulty wrapping his head around a performance of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya”. With the production’s debut looming on the horizon, Paul’s agent suggests that he take drastic measures to correct the problem. Enter Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn), a scientist who specializes in removing, freezing, and storing the human soul. Despite severe reservations about the process, Paul’s desire to free himself of his burdens ultimately overcomes rationality. Before you can say “chickpea”, Mr. Giamatti’s fragile soul has been systemically sucked from his body and stored properly inside a clear glass container.
Before too long, the side effects of this questionable process set in. In addition to a general sense of malaise, Paul’s knee-jerk reaction to sensitive situations is somewhat emotionless and hurtful, his skin takes on a scaly texture, and his interpretation of “Uncle Vanya” suddenly takes a drastic turn for the worse. In order to help Paul overcome these unexpected issues, Dr. Flintstein gladly offers to temporarily install the soul of a Russian poet. However, after being tormented by memories and emotions from his borrowed soul, Paul finally decides to reverse the procedure. From here, things get a little weird.
“Cold Souls” has been marketed primarily as a comedy, though for the life of me, I didn’t find the central premise to be all that humorous. Sure, it’s quirky and strange, but there were very few moments when I was actually laughing out loud. The idea of removing the soul in order to relieve the associated stress is intriguing, and the concept is often used to great effect. And while there are a few key scenes where the absurdity is certainly amusing, the film works best when it’s quiet and thoughtful. French director Sophie Barthes execution of the material is razor-sharp, and her knack for subtle surrealism
The secret ingredient, of course, is Paul Giamatti. Even when he’s knee-deep in the worst nuclear waste the Hollywood machine can muster, the guy is always spot-on. Watching him portray a big-screen version of himself is nothing short of entertaining, thanks in part to Barthes wonderfully off-beat script. There’s a vulnerability here that is frequently absent in his mainstream fodder, and it suits the material surprisingly well. Watching him spiral into depression is heartbreaking; the effect on his physical and emotional well-being is noticeable yet suitably understated. If you’re on the fence about the guy, this should help ease you towards the positive.
In the hands of lesser talents, “Cold Souls” could have ended up as one long 90-minute joke, an emotionally defunct exercise in cheap laughs and silly sci-fi. Barthes and Giamatti, as well as David Strathairn and Emily Watson, go to great lengths to make this goofy premise seem quite ordinary, and for the most part, they succeed. However, if you’re looking for something as witty and outrageous as “Adaptation” or “Being John Malkovich,” you’ve come to the wrong place. “Cold Souls”, like “Uncle Vanya“, features a collection of characters and their respective problems, and while their stories might be humorous in nature, it’s not exactly laugh-out-loud hilarious. In this case, that’s a definite plus.
Sophie Barthes (director) / Sophie Barthes (screenplay)
CAST: Paul Giamatti … Paul
Dina Korzun … Nina
Emily Watson … Claire
David Strathairn … Dr. Flintstein
Katheryn Winnick … Sveta
Lauren Ambrose … Stephanie