' Cinema Romantico: Cold Souls

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Cold Souls

"Soullesness has its own peculiarities." - Dr. Flintstein (David Straithairn)

I hate to be the guy that describes a movie as so-and-so meets so-and-so but the so-and-so meets so-and-so description of "Cold Souls" is so spectacular I have no choice and so here it is.

Last year's "Cold Souls" is "Being John Malkovich" Meets "Maria Full Of Grace". Woo hoo! That's a movie you want to see, isn't it? Ah, but do you really want to see "Cold Souls"? Does it live up to it's so-and-so meets so-and-so premise? Therein lies the question.

So imagine Paul Giamatti as an existential action hero. But imagine Paul Giamatti playing Paul Giamatti as an existential action hero. Set to star in a stage performance of "Uncle Vanya" Paul Giamatti is a suffering a severe crisis of, well, possibly everything. A crisis of confidence. A crisis of conscience. Maybe it's mid-life. Maybe it's a nervous breakdown. Maybe it's all of this at once. His agent suggests he check out an article in The New Yorker about soul storage, whereby one Dr. Flintstein can, in a circumstance where perhaps a soul begins to resemble a tumor, remove it and allow you to proceed with your life soulless.

Paul Giamatti is not so much intrigued as desperate. He goes through with it only to immediately experience complications. His symptoms seem to get worse and his already problematic stage performance goes even further off the rails. His wife (Emily Watson) is understandably confused when he admits what he has done. Paul Giamatti returns to Dr. Flintstein who recommends he try out a different soul for size - this one of a Russian poet.

The Russian poet is key as it signals the film's most vital subplot - the hardscrabble blackmarket Russian business of soul trafficking, seen through the eyes of a soul "mule", Nina (Dina Korzun). This is how Paul Giamatti's chickpea sized soul ends up in the body of a Russian soap opera actress (the most mesmeric Katheryn Winnick) and why Paul Giamatti himself will scour the bleak St. Petersburg street in search of his own soul.

Amidst this rather subdued mayhem the real Paul Giamatti gives a tremendous performance as himself. A man who alternately has a soul, doesn't have one, then has someone else's, and who is also required to give a poor stage performance on purpose. Throughout the film his hinges are clearly squeaky - we never doubt for a second something is wrong with him or that he would make the decisions he does - he fields the ongoing developments with a comedic timing that is believable in both its bewilderment and weariness.

For all that goes on here, though, the film never really bubbles over, you never feel a rush watching it like you do in a Charlie Kaufman-written escapade which, like it or not, "Cold Souls" devoutly resembles. It feels so detached.

But the more the film progressed the more I wondered if that was precisely the tone for which writer/director Sophie Barthes was striving. As Dr. Flintstein explains time and again they understand how to remove the soul but that brings no one closer to an understanding of the soul. Soullesness, after all, has its own peculiarities and maybe the weird, unexplainable sensation I had watching "Cold Souls" is what I would get if I chose to store my own soul.

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