Last week, I wrote a short review of Seconds and the “what-if-ness” of cinema. This weekend, I watched a recent dark comedy, Cold Souls, that blends reality and the “what if” in really interesting ways.Cold Souls stars actor Paul Giamatti playing himself. In this case, he is struggling to accurately portray the lead role in an Anton Chekhov play. His agent encourages him to look at a recent article in The New Yorker about a business in New York City that specializes in soul storage. He goes to meet Dr. D Flinstein (David Strathairn) and learns that soul storage is indeed a thriving business as it helps remove the burdens that the soul inflicts on day-to-day life. As Dr. Flinstein tells Giamatti, the soul can become a self-imposed limitation, and whenever you get rid of it, everything makes so much sense. Giamatti signs a non-returnable, non-refundable contract to have his soul extracted (in a machine straight out of a 1950s B sci-fi flick). After the procedure, he is deeply dismayed to see that it is, literally, the size and shape of a chickpea. Dr. Flinstein reassures him, “Just because it’s small doesn’t mean anything.” Giamatti attempts to live and work in soullessness but cannot handle the emptiness. Although he cannot have his soul back, he can choose another soul from a catalogue. He chooses a Russian poet’s soul (soul trafficking between the United States and Russia is big business), but soon wants to give it back because it is simply too beautiful for him. In the meantime, a young, wealthy Russian actress wants the soul of an American actor, say a Johnny Depp or an Al Pacino, to improve her career. Unfortunately, the only actor soul that the mule (the woman who transports souls) can find is Giamatti’s. When Giamatti learns that his soul has been “borrowed” he tracks down the mule and accompanies her to Russia in an attempt to recover his soul.
This is a quirky little existential, surreal comedy that a typical Hollywood production would love to destroy with an actor like, say, Jim Carrey. Thankfully, we have Giamatti in the lead role, truly the highlight of the film. His expressions, mannerisms, and outbursts as he progresses from soul-despising to soul-embracing drive the film forward, even when the narrative drags just a bit. There’s a priceless, early soulless scene in which Giamatti obliviously partakes of dinner with friends while the rest of them discuss their comatose mother. After a time he tells them, “Just unplug her.” The scene works so effectively because there are few, if any, others like it in the film. Cold Souls also includes some potentially throw-away lines (“I don’t want my soul shipped to New Jersey!!”) that would ordinarily fail in a lesser comedy but succeed here, thanks in no small part to both an effective cast and an unyielding tone. The cinematography is certainly effective, especially when we get the rare glimpse inside Giamatti’s soul and in the simultaneously heart-breaking and hopeful final scene.
Cold Souls is an accomplished and promising work from first-time writer and director Sophie Barthes. Barthes provides us with a much-needed and welcomed message without being heavy-handed about it. Even if we don’t feel like it, and especially in a world that constantly tells us they don’t, our souls have beauty and value beyond our imagining. Unfortunately, like Giamatti, we are often too fearful to look within both ourselves and others to find it out.
Cold Souls (101 mins.) is Rated PG-13 for nudity (very brief) and brief strong language.