Cold Souls

Cold Souls

David Strathairn shows an amazed Paul Giamatti what a soul looks like; being in Hollywood, he's never seen one before.

(2009) Sci-Fi Dramedy (Goldwyn) Paul Giamatti, David Strathairn, Emily Watson, Dina Korzun, Lauren Ambrose, Katheryn Winnick, Rebecca Brooksher, Michael Tucker, Armand Schultz, Boris Kievsky, Gregory Korostishevsky. Directed by Sophie Barthes

What is our soul, really? Is it just a concept, as ephemeral as a thought? Or is it something real and tangible, something that can be made physical and as such, something that can be removed if need be?

Paul Giamatti (playing himself – kind of) is an actor who has been lauded for many performances and is currently taking on the role of Uncle Vanya in a Broadway production of the Chekhov play. It’s meant to be a comedy, but Paul is having issues. He is feeling too much and his performance is suffering.

He reads an article in the New Yorker about a service in which souls may be extracted and stored. Intrigued, he meets up with the man behind it, Dr. Flintstein (Strathairn) who assures him that the procedure is painless and safe. After some reluctance on his part at first, Paul finally decides to do it.

The operation is as promised; brief, painless and safe. At first, it’s like a great weight taken off of his shoulders. Surprisingly, whereas souls took all sorts of odd shapes and sizes, Paul’s looks very much like a chick pea – or garbanzo bean if you prefer. Such a small thing, Paul muses, but such a great weight it carries with it.

At first things are swell. But as time passes, things are not swell, as things often become. Soon, Paul’s wife Claire (Watson) – whom he never informed about his procedure – notices a change in Paul’s personality. So does the director (Tucker) of the play, which is very disturbing as they are days away from opening and Paul is clearly not even close to ready. It seems that Paul’s soul was necessary after all and he returns to the clinic to have it re-installed.

Except it’s missing. As it turns out, there is a high demand for black market American souls in Russia and a mule named Nina (Korzun) has taken Paul’s soul, thinking it was Al Pacino’s, for the girlfriend (Winnick) of a Russian mobster who yearns to be a movie star. Paul must journey to Moscow to retrieve his stolen soul in the company of a sympathetic Nina, who has elements of all the soul’s she’s carried within her, including Paul’s. However he’ll have to brave the wrath of a Russian gangster and the bureaucracy of the former Soviet Union if he’s to get his real soul back.

Not many would tackle souls as a subject for a movie in a Hollywood that is politically correct, for fear of offending the religious right or the non-religious left. In that sense, Barthes is an equal opportunity offender here but I don’t get that’s her actual goal.

She’s gathered a decent cast around her. Giamatti is an Oscar-nominated actor, one who has been giving consistently strong performances nearly every time out since his coming out party for Sideways back in 2004. He’s not playing himself, really – he’s playing a character here loosely based on himself – or at least looking a lot like himself – but maybe more of what he perceives others perceive him as. I know that sounds confusing but don’t think about it too much and you’ll get used to him being addressed with his real name onscreen.

Strathairn is also one of the best character actors of his generation, one who projects competence and character in every role. While his part is essentially comedic, he lends a bit of – not gravitas precisely, but legitimacy in any case. As always, even in a part that might not necessarily demand it, he gives a smart performance.

Watson, who I’ve barely mentioned in the description of the plot, manages to make the most of her brief appearance. She is understanding and devoted to the point of ferocity to her somewhat quirky husband. She comes off as a somewhat ideal wife and that in itself can make for a bland performance, but she is far from that here. As a critic, I appreciate that she took a role that lends itself to being taken for granted and makes it shine. I also liked Korzun’s performance as the sympathetic soul mule. It may have taken the souls of others for her to develop a conscience but Korzun makes Nina’s change from amoral employee to sympathetic assistant to Giamatti a fluid and organic one.

I have a thing about movies that make you think, and this one is one of those. Director Barthes, who also wrote the script, is offering up a debate about a subject not often tackled by the movies because of the religious implications. What is the soul? What makes it important? What does it look like? How can it be changed? What happens to us when it does?

Big questions deserve big answers and sadly, none are forthcoming here. The problem with the movie is that it is VERY cerebral but it really leaves the debate in the theater and not on the screen. Because it’s so very thought-provoking, it takes it’s time getting itself established and the whole Russian mobster sub-plot felt a bit misguided. Still, it’s a smart and at times very funny exploration of a subject that’s so rarely tackled in ANY medium that the filmmakers get a couple of points just for attempting it. I’m looking forward to more movies that provoke this kind of debate from Ms. Barthes.

WHY RENT THIS: A unique concept, well-executed. Fine performances from Giamatti, Strathairn and Watson.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: So overly cerebral that at times the movie drags.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sexuality as well as some fairly mature concepts. The language can get a little rough too.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The entire movie was inspired by a dream that Woody Allen had in which he discover his soul resembles a garbanzo bean.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a three-minute featurette on the design and construction of the soul extractor.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this probably lost a few bucks.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: In a Better World (Haevnen)

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