Cold Souls: Not Too Much Soul, But It’s Plenty Cold

In The Village Voice, Sophie Barthes, writer/director of Cold Souls, said of the obvious comparisons to this film, a meta-comedy where Paul Giamatti plays himself, and Charlie Kaufman’s first screenplay, Being John Malkovich, “I don’t want people to think my movie is derivative… I don’t think it feels like a Kaufman film—he’s much more cynical, sarcastic, and twisted.” While Barthes is spot-on, it’s the lack of a Kaufmanesque bite, which usually elevates his meta-comedies to stratospheric heights, that causes Cold Souls to feel…well, cold.

Paul Giamatti plays Paul Giamatti, an actor whose current role as the title character in Chekov’s classic Uncle Vanya is weighing heavily on his shoulders. He is depressed, with perpetually slumped shoulders and feelings of inadequacy. He happens upon an article in The New Yorker (an amusing concept) that describes a growing business that extracts your soul and allows you to live without burden for a period, while your soul sits in cold storage. Unfortunately for Giamatti, when he decides he wants his soul back, he discovers it’s been taken by a soul mule (Dina Korzin) to the wife of the Russian underground soul trade who desired to have the soul of a great actor– she thinks she has Al Pacino’s soul. Now, with the help of the mule (who has seen his soul and how beautiful it is), he travels to Russia in an attempt to get it back.

If you take the concept by itself, you would imagine a 4-star film at work. Giamatti indeed does great work here, and the plot points are clever– unfortunately, they are almost exceedingly clever, and since the film never really uses the plot to uncover deeper truths about the human experience the way other meta-comedies have, it becomes the type of film where you pat yourself on the back for understanding how complex and clever the plot is rather than getting completely lost in the proceedings. Giamatti and the mule try, but we never really get to experience any true deep feelings in the film, except for when Giamatti is portraying Vanya on stage, after seeing two scenes of which I desired to switch from the current plot to a strict movie adaptation of Uncle Vanya. These scenes achieve depth of emotion and seem to speak to the human experience.

While Barthes may find Kaufman to be sarcastic and twisted, Kaufman uses these traits in his films Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Synecdoche, New York to share his unique perspective on the world, and his often absurd imagery and plot twists can take us to a blissful place. Barthes’s perspective seems far less unique, and Cold Souls never moves past what it is– an mildly entertaining, diverting bit of clever writing surrounding a charismatic character actor. It has more thought than most films, but doesn’t take it to the next level. A running comment about how Giamatti never wants to see the contents of his soul– which reveals to anyone who’s ever seen a movie that he will see it by movie’s end– sets up what should be Barthes’ blissful imagery moment. It’s memorable but never goosebump-inducing. Cold Souls has intelligence to spare, but ironically, it lacks soul.

~ by russellhainline on October 6, 2009.

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