Saturday, September 12, 2009

He pays to lose his soul

Paul Giamatti prepares to surrender his soul.

Director Sophie Barthes' Cold Souls opened in Denver without benefit of a display ad in any newspaper and with no local reviewer weighing in on the movie, which was not screened in advance. That's too bad because Barthes' movie merits attention, even though it doesn't always live up to the boldness of its premise. It's not that Cold Souls needed to transcend a gimmicky conceit, but that it could have benefited from a little more richness beneath its clever surface. Still, Cold Souls can be entertaining, and clever certainly trumps dopey.

Cold Souls also is well acted by a cast that deals with a bizarre notion; i.e., the idea that human souls can be extracted from bodies and that those who submit to such a procedure will be happier for it.

But wait, there's more! Not only can souls be extracted, they also can be added. So when an actor who's struggling with his role in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya decides he needs help, he rents a Russian poet's soul for two weeks. Suddenly, Chekhov -- which he'd been treating in cheery, soulless fashion -- deepens for him.

All of this soulful gimmickry is fun, but the movie -- mildly reminiscent of the work of Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) -- has an even greater trick to play. The actor who's trying to plumb the soul-wrenching depths of Uncle Vanya is Paul Giamatti, who plays an actor named Paul Giamatti. Talk about a role Giamatti was born to play.

A despairing Giamatti learns about soul extraction when his agent points out a New Yorker article that talks about how one can get rid of a burdened soul. Giamatti warily visits Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn), a soul extractor who tells Giamatti that he'll probably shed lots of weighty baggage when he surrenders his soul. Giamatti is placed in a machine that looks like those used to create CT Scans.

Presto: Giamatti's soul, which turns out to be the size of a chickpea, is extracted. Rest easy, guys. Dr. Flintstein assures Giamatti that when it comes to souls, size doesn't matter.

Eventually, Giamatti tells his wife (Emily Watson) what he's done, and vows to get his soul back. Turns out a Russian courier (Dina Korzun) who smuggles souls into the U.S. has taken Giamatti's soul to Russia where it winds up in the body of an aspiring actress.

Korzun's Nina and Giamatti eventually team up, travel to Russia and try to retrieve his soul. All this soul swapping grows less amusing as the movie wears on, but Cold Souls doesn't stint on creativity and makes fine use of Giamatti's capacity for exasperation, which at least in this case seems boundless.

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