By James Rocchi (reprint from Sundance 2009)
It's inevitable Cold Souls -- with its pseudo-scientific commercialized metaphysics and actor's angst -- will be compared to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich; it's the first post-Charlie Kaufman film, where the writer-director's weird, wooly aesthetic becomes a genre unto itself. Starring Paul Giamatti as, in a blatant piece of typecasting, actor Paul Giamatti, Cold Souls begins with Giamatti rehearsing the title role in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, and it's obviously taking its toll as he plunges into sad-sack Russian angst and anomie. Giamatti's agent tips him to an article in The New Yorker, profiling a new service called "Soul Storage," wherein melancholy Manhattanites are having their souls extracted by Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn) and held in escrow so they can live less complicated lives. Giamatti, wondering if having less soul would help him better play the part and get through the day, goes to Flintstein's office to get the details: "Your soul can be stored here ... or if you'd prefer to avoid the sales tax, it can be shipped to our storage facility in New Jersey. ..."
And again, you get the Kaufman vibe from writer-director Sophie Barthes; the dry humor, the everyday acceptance of the ludicrous, the ludicrous nature of the everyday. But while the comparisons to Eternal Sunshine and Being John Malkovich are inevitable, they're also not quite right. Eternal Sunshine was about the messy business of loving another; Cold Souls, with the equally messy proposition of living with one's self. Being John Malkovitch riffed comedy out of celebrity and stardom; Cold Souls examines sub-lebrity and acting. Cold Souls is a beautifully shot film, and it also becomes more than a little bit moving, as Giamatti struggles with a question we've all asked ourselves: Is it possible to remove the burden of our soul without taking away the benefit of it? Is it the very weight we struggle under that makes us strong?
Deep questions, but Cold Souls is also funny; there are fast, laugh-out-loud gags like Giamatti's compensation anxiety over the small size of his extracted soul ("It looks like a chickpea!") or the Russian trophy wife obsessed with getting an American actor's extracted soul so she can implant it and do better Soap Opera work. But there are also subtler bits of comedy that not only make you laugh but make their point; Strathairn's placid, soothing man of medicine seems entirely too reasonable and calm -- more glad scientist than mad scientist -- until you realize that, to paraphrase the old Hair Club for Men ads, he's not just the founder of Soul Storage, but he's also a client.
The soulless Giamatti feels better, briefly, but the fact he's become a glib, insufferable fool annoys his wife (Emily Watson) and turns his performance as Vanya into a wide, weak piece of cheese. The scene of the de-souled Giamatti playing Vanya -- with his easy grin and broad delivery of lines like "Whaddaya waiting for?" -- brings back Paul Thomas Anderson's observation on the Boogie Nights DVD commentary that it takes a great actor to play a bad actor, and it's a truly impressive piece of work. But when he wants to reverse the process, his soul can't be found, and so Giamatti has a Russian donated soul installed in place of his own. That borrowed sprit helps, a little, but it too becomes close to unbearable, and in trying to find the donor alongside one of the system's soul couriers (Dina Korzn) gets mixed up in the Russian network of mules and donors and customers working with Dr. Flintstein, even traveling to St. Petersburg to walk the wintry streets in search of a soul...
With cinematography by Andrij Parkeh, Cold Souls is a gorgeously shot movie, whether flickering between the real world or the visions of the unconscious, capturing a snowy Russian vista or the art-deco whiz-bang claustrophobia inside the soul collector. And the supporting cast is excellent -- Strathairn, yes, but also Dina Korzn as the soul-mule who comes to help Giamatti, Michael Tucker as Giamatti's confused director and an uncredited Clancy Brown as a Russian soul-storage capitalist with an eye on the next opportunity.
Giamatti, though -- well, you know Giamatti does great work, whether as the striving, snobbish flawed man trying to do better in Sideways or the curdled creative curmudgeon of American Splendor; Giamatti was even worth watching in the sub-moronic Shoot 'Em Up, which is saying a lot. Here, though, he gives what may be his best performance, stretching to play several variations of himself, and manages several seemingly incompatible things -- investing real heart into what's essentially a character defined by a science-fiction device, finding real emotion in surreal inventions and yet giving his everyday moments a deft, askew energy. He doesn't even want the Soul Storage procedure to be a cure-all, just a moment of rest: "I don't want to be happy; I just need to not suffer." He's talking about a completely fictional procedure, but his need for it -- his desperate, anguished need for some relief, any relief -- rings out as real. Cold Souls looks and feels like a Charlie Kaufman film, but it's somehow slipperier and yet simpler, more complex and yet more direct. Part of the pleasure of Cold Souls is that as we watch Paul Giamatti struggle to understand his soul, we can't help but cast a glance towards our own.