DIRECTED BY: Sophie Barthes
FEATURING: Paul Giamatti, Dina Korzun, David Strathairn
PLOT: Paul Giamatti (playing himself) feels burdened by his soul, so he utilizes the services of a company that specializes in soul removal and storage; when he decides to reclaim it from its safe deposit box, he finds there’s a problem…
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Cold Souls is an excellent little movie, but it pitches its tent a few yards outside the boundaries of Weird City. It posits its impossible philosophic premise as a scientific fact, and develops a strangely believable set of consequences from it. It’s magical realism that’s heavy on the realism but light on the magic; a perfectly reasonable artistic choice, and one that works well here, but a choice that should prevent it from making the List. A brief peek inside the (rather blurry) corridors of Giamatti’s soul isn’t enough to smuggle it across the weird border.
COMMENTS: Cold Souls has three things going for it: an intriguing concept, a great sense of humor, and Paul Giamatti. Writer/director Barthes doesn’t have anything new or profound to say about the human soul—her theme is limited to the idea that it has something to do with suffering, and the fact that we’re less human if we lose it—but what new or profound is likely to be said about the nebulous, millennia old concept of soul? Instead, she wisely focuses on creating an elaborate medical mythology of the soulectomy, and builds a fascinating plot by exploring those soul mechanics. We get such concepts as soul residues, the black market soul trade (dominated by those masters of soul, the Russians, natch), and soul mules, people who implant the souls of others inside themselves to smuggle them across international borders. The jokes arise naturally from the set of rules Barthes devises: human essences manifest themselves physically in a variety of shapes, including jellybeans and chickpeas, sometimes to their owners’ dismay. It’s gratifying to find laugh-out-loud funny lines in this film, since the intellectual concept could easily have limited the humor to being merely sly, witty, and clever.
Deadpan David Strathairn, as a satirically practical plastic surgeon of the psyche, sets up some of the best gags, such as the idea that removed souls can be warehoused in New Jersey to save on state sales tax. But most of the humor and pathos come from the performance of Giamatti, who plays both a soulful and a soulless role; he’s funny when troubled, and troubling once his cares are removed. Giamatti puts his own twist on the smart, neurotic Woody Allen type, but conveys plenty of genuine existential melancholy as well. As an actor playing an actor (his painful emotional over-involvement in playing the title role in Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” sets the plot in motion), he truly tests his range. It’s quite a challenge for a polished actor to portray a bad thespian, and Giamatti gets to showcase two failed Vanyas: one that’s subtly off because he’s too depressed, and one that is a complete, farcical burlesque. With the range he shows here, Giamatti merits Oscar notice. On the negative side, one could criticize the flat ending, which is not ambiguous so much as inconclusive, and the fact that the obvious similarities to Being John Malkovich tempt unflattering comparisons. Cold Souls is still a rewarding watch, a smart movie that avoids pretension and delivers solid chuckles.
Eric Young‘s alternate take: it should be borderline weird, at least: Cold Souls is a weird movie in the same way that Southland Tales is weird, except that it’s not horrible. It has that paranoid misgiving about the future that begs to be analyzed like a cinematic psychological disorder. There’s something definitely weird about the world that surrounds Paul Giamatti here: it’s foreign, it’s vaguely (and at times obviously) threatening, and it fuels a very strong, underlying neurosis in Paul. Sophie Barthes’ odd cinematic landscape was not the best place for him to go and get something as emotionally and philosophically ponderous as a soul removal, I believe.
Cold Souls is one of the weirder films I’ve seen in 2009, a year soundly devoid of anything resembling true weirdness a la (or , if you’re feeling frisky). It seems the indie circuit has taken the ideas brought forth by the cinematic pioneers of oddities from yesteryear and used them to fit their own kitschy agenda. This new breed write bizarre movies without really bringing much attention to the deformed elephant they’ve written into the room: see Growing Out, as well as flicks like ‘s Fur and, to a lesser extent, Wristcutters. Their efforts have been of dubious quality, for the most part, as most indie directors are a little too insistent on navel gazing to examine the strangeness in their midst, but Cold Souls has something different about it. It’s a well-made movie with a star in his prime that has its priorities lined up, and while existential ponderings by resident schlub Giamatti are priority numero uno, introducing us to the fascinatingly bizarre world of illegal Russian soul trafficking and all the unusual characters involved is pretty high on the list, much to the delight of anyone who’s willing to try something different and new.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“It’s the kind of thing that could easily be played as zany, cockeyed weirdness – but Barthes… wisely keeps the temperature pretty cool throughout. Exploring bizarre concepts, characters and situations with a deadpan matter-of-factness results in a likeably offbeat affair that’s frequently funny and occasionally hilarious, thankfully avoiding the self-consciousness and clever-clever, overcooked feel that marred Charlie Kaufman’s recent, not-so-dissimilar Synecdoche, New York.”–Neil Young, Neil Young’s Film Lounge (contemporaneous)