'Cold Souls': Metaphysical Comedy, Lightly Chilled

WD: David Strathairn and Paul Giamatti in 'Cold Souls' i i

Anxious actor Paul Giamatti (right) puts his soul on ice to help calm his nerves — then discovers that Dr. Flinstein (David Strathairn) and his Soul Storage firm are doing more than just filing spirits away. Adam Bell/Samuel Goldwyn Films hide caption

itoggle caption Adam Bell/Samuel Goldwyn Films
WD: David Strathairn and Paul Giamatti in 'Cold Souls'

Anxious actor Paul Giamatti (right) puts his soul on ice to help calm his nerves — then discovers that Dr. Flinstein (David Strathairn) and his Soul Storage firm are doing more than just filing spirits away.

Adam Bell/Samuel Goldwyn Films

Cold Souls

  • Director: Sophie Barthes
  • Genre: Meta-comedy
  • Running Time: 101 minutes

Rated PG-13: Partial nudity, profane language

With: Paul Giamatti, Dina Korzun, Emily Watson, Katheryn Winnick

A literary souffle that's too watery to cohere, let alone rise, Cold Souls draws on such celebrated authors as Gogol, Chekhov and Charlie Kaufman.

Kaufman, of course, wrote Being John Malkovich, a film that suggested that it was possible to enter Malkovich's consciousness — and starred that actor himself.

Cold Souls strains a slightly different premise. The movie suggests that it's possible to empty Paul Giamatti's consciousness — and stars that actor himself.

Probably best known as Sideways' wine snob, or perhaps as founding father John Adams in the HBO miniseries, Giamatti here stretches very little to play a version of himself: a grumpy New York actor with more than his fair portion of existential nausea. He's rehearsing Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, and the role is giving him a pain — literally.

Rather than consult a doctor, Paul calls his agent, who recommends the latest thing. There's a company on Roosevelt Island (in New York's East River) that will extract your soul. Soul Storage, it seems, has even been profiled in The New Yorker.

Paul hurries to the firm, where one Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn) reassures him that life without a soul "makes so much more sense." After the procedure, the actor says he feels empty but "great." Yet he quickly becomes his crabby old self when he gets a glimpse of his soul — and discovers it resembles a chickpea. The setup of writer-director Sophie Barthes' debut feature is already sputtering, and the movie's logic only gets messier as the tale continues.

Back at the theater, Paul finds he now can't play Chekhov at all; every line comes out blithe, perky and otherwise un-Slavic. At home, the actor's wife (an underused Emily Watson) complains that his skin has become scaly.

Paul revisits Soul Storage, which turns out not to be primarily in the storage business; it also sells (or rents) the souls archived in its chilled vaults. Because he's doing Vanya, the actor selects the essence of a Russian poet.

Emily Watson and Paul Giamatti in 'Cold Souls' i i

Once his soul is extracted, Giamatti's wife Claire (Emily Watson) notices he's changed, and not for the better. Samuel Goldwyn Films hide caption

itoggle caption Samuel Goldwyn Films
Emily Watson and Paul Giamatti in 'Cold Souls'

Once his soul is extracted, Giamatti's wife Claire (Emily Watson) notices he's changed, and not for the better.

Samuel Goldwyn Films

When the leased psyche doesn't work out, Paul asks that his own soul be reinstalled. But it's not available, having been peddled to a Russian soap-opera actress who thinks she's acquired the inner force of a bigger Hollywood star.

At this point, the movie has run its course but is barely halfway done. So Barthes does what many directors have done before her: switches locations and brings in Russian gangsters.

Paul travels to St. Petersburg — always good for some scenic vistas — with the help of Nina (Dina Korzun), the "mule" who carries Russian souls to New York. (How? She sticks them in a part of her brain that was discovered by Descartes, or so the movie implies.) Together, Paul and Nina contrive to retrieve the actor's psyche.

The sort of movie in which a Russian mobster quotes pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, Cold Souls poses as a brainy, provocative venture. But it doesn't even have a working idea — comic or otherwise — of what the soul is. Ultimately, Paul is compelled to gaze into his own self, and what he sees there could not be cornier.

Nikolai Gogol had a cleverer idea. His Dead Souls is about a man with an elaborate scheme to use dead serfs as collateral in a real-estate deal. Gogol's comic novel was written more than 150 years ago, but it's still strikingly pertinent: Why struggle to find laughs in soul-swapping when it would be much timelier fun to mock credit default swaps?

Related NPR Stories

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.