Paul Giamatti plays Paul Giamatti in Cold Souls; a quirky yet subtle satire of a culture that needs a full aisle of different painkillers, antidepressants, and other assortments of quick-remedy pills at the supermarket because it believes a pill can solve everything.
In Cold Souls Paul Giamatti (the character played by Paul Giamatti) becomes the victim of this Tylenol culture. He has been having trouble concentrating for a role in Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. Paul believes this is because his soul is weighing him down. Not only have dark thoughts been clouding his mind but also life at home with Mrs. Giamatti has not been getting any easier. If only Paul could get rid of the burden that is his soul. Luckily he stumbles upon an article in the New Yorker for a soul storage company; New Yorkers who feel troubled by their souls can have a simple soul removing surgery that takes away the soul along with all its pesky little dark thoughts. Paul decides to go check it out.
The burden is lifted away, or rather cold stored, and Paul becomes a new kind of actor, light, quirky, refreshed, but terrible. Because a great performance requires an actor to pour not just his body and mind but his soul as well and Paul has no soul. When he tries to get his soul back a little problem arises; the company has misplaced Paul’s soul. What follows is a cold and, for lack of a better word, soulless journey, which involves a Russian soul trafficking ring, a talent-less actress hoping to find the soul of Al Pacino, and Nina (Dina Korzun) a sweet soul smuggler who has accumulated the residue of all the souls she has smuggled to and from Russia.
The film never explains exactly what the soul is or what the soul does. If fact it avoids the question completely. Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn) simply explains “all we know is we can desoul the body, or debody the soul”. Nevertheless Giamatti (the actor) delivers a rather interesting interpretation of how a soulless person would act. It is simply the dark thoughts and the passionate feelings that go away, everything else seems to be controlled by either the body or the mind. In all truth the film is a vehicle for Giamatti to experiment with his own acting but for a moment you believe that soulless Paul does not have either dark thoughts or passionate feelings; the latter one is particularly clear. Alongside Giamatti, Starhairn and Korzun deliver particularly good complimentary performances. Strathairn plays Dr. Flintstein as one of those doctors who care little about their patients but are fascinated by the procedure and driven by both: the discovery and the money. I would imagine it was particularly difficult for Starthairn to keep a straight face while explaining why when it comes to the soul size does not matter, or why it comes in the shape of a chickpea. The doctor’s everyday attitude about his own outlandish suggestions give the film a kind of magical realism that allows us to accept the science fiction elements of the film. It would have been hard to find two better actors (Giamatti and Strathairn) to delver a comical, yet tragic, dialoged about loosing one’s soul. Meanwhile Korzu balances the dark comedy with a much more solemn performance as Nina. The Russian soul smuggler works more like a mule and her fate is somewhat reminiscent of the character’s fate in Maria Full of Grace, another film about mules and smuggling.
This is Sophie Barthes first film, both as a director and as a writer. As a director she fills the film with a sort of Kaufmanesque poetry delivered with cold satire. And in a way the premise of the film resembles Charlie Kaufman’s own Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I have little doubt that Kaufman will watch this movie, if he hasn’t already seen it. And I do hope that one day Charlie and Sophie work together; it be interesting to see what they come up with.