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Review: Cold Souls

Paul Giamatti can't heat up Cold Souls
By PETER KEOUGH  |  August 17, 2009
2.0 2.0 Stars


Cold Souls | Written and Directed by Sophie Barthes | with Paul Giamatti, David Strathairn, Dina Korzun, Katheryn Winnick, Lauren Ambrose, and Emily Watson | Samuel Goldwyn Films | 101 minutes
What if human souls were as interchangeable as hearts, kidneys, movie concepts, and auto parts? Writer/director Sophie Barthes's feature debut toys with the notion, but instead of breaking new ground, Cold Souls settles for rehashing elements from other films — like EternalSunshine of theSpotless Mind, Being John Malkovich, American Splendor, and Vanya on 42ndStreet.

Vanya gets tapped in the first scene as Paul Giamatti (played by himself) rehearses the climax of Chekhov's play, in which Vanya confronts his pointless mediocrity. Turns out Giamatti might be undergoing a similar crisis. In distress, he halts the performance and heads home to his long-suffering wife (Emily Watson, in what might be the most thankless role of the year) for some soul searching. Then, on a tip from his agent, he reads a New Yorker article about a new technology that just might solve his problem. Troubled souls, it turns out, can be extracted and preserved in a jar; their owners can then live their lives without spiritual complications. Me, I'd settle for Prozac. Nonetheless, Giamatti heads off to Roosevelt Island and a gleaming white "Soul Storage" facility, where he meets with the lubricious director, Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn), whose name suggests the level of wit to follow.

Meanwhile, Nina (Dina Korzun, who steals the film) is doing some soul searching of her own. After passing through customs at Kennedy Airport with a fake passport and fingerprints, she too makes for Flintstein's office, where she drops something off. Returning to St. Petersburg, she solicits persons in soul-destroying jobs or lives of quiet desperation and persuades them to sell their souls. These are extracted, inserted into "mules" like Nina, and smuggled into the US, where they're delivered to Soul Storage and installed within soul-searching American clients. Poets' souls are especially in demand.

Giamatti finally does decide to have his own soul put on ice (it looks like a chickpea, one of the film's wearily recurring gags), and though he feels "empty," he also feels "great." But the operation has a bad effect on his portrayal of Vanya (though I liked the jaunty, mad-Hamlet spin he gives the character), so, fearing he might lose the part, he decides to sample a "Russian" soul to improve his performance. Surprise! — that soul proves even more burdensome than his own. Frustrated, he asks to have his back.

So, which is the problem, too much soul or too little? For Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, it's the latter, and it would seem so for Giamatti, as well. Why, then, would he dispose of the shrunken residue that he still possesses? Other unresolved issues that Barthes raises include the alienating effects of capitalism and the commodification of vicarious suffering.

But rather than examine the ramifications of soul trafficking, she takes refuge in a slapsticky sketch with ponderous literary allusions (Gogol's Dead Souls?) — the kind of half-baked thing Woody Allen might have abandoned in the '70s only to revive it decades later in Whatever Works. The moments when the film comes closest to touching the soul are the scenes in which Giamatti plays Vanya. Unfortunately, these are also the moments that remind you Barthes is no Charlie Kaufman — never mind Anton Chekhov.

Related: Festival atmosphere, Review: Duplicity, Review: Observe and Report, More more >
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