Charlie Kaufman had nothing to do with the Sundance Drama Competition entry “Cold Souls,” but his name is likely to come up in nearly every review of the speculative existential thriller.
Think “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” meets “Being John Malkovich” (now “Being Paul Giamatti”) and you’d have at least some idea of what to expect out of writer-director Sophie Barthes’ feature debut.
While Barthes’ high concept premise is a trippy conversation starter, the movie’s actual execution is a little bit lax at times. True to its title, the movie has a bit of soul, plus brooding aplenty, but not nearly enough heart.
More thoughts after the bump…
“Cold Souls” stars Paul Giamatti as Paul Giamatti, an angsty actor having trouble separating himself from his upcoming Broadway turn in “Uncle Vanya.” Giamatti is so tied up in knots over his self-obsessed character that when he hears about a company that will remove your suffering soul and store it on ice until you’re ready for the responsibility again, he figures he has nothing to lose.
Did he not see the episode of “The Simpsons” where Bart sells Milhouse his soul for five dollars and suddenly can’t open automatic doors anymore? Great episode.
Of course, as simple as it seems to slide into the giant white womb of the soul-sucking machine (a rather clear homage to Woody Allen’s “Sleeper”), it turns out that life without a soul is life without pain *or* pleasure. What he also doesn’t know is that soul removal and transferal is big business, especially for the Russians, who utilize soul-trafficking mules.
Like “Eternal Sunshine,” “Cold Souls” is half science fiction and half philosophy 201 text. It begins with a quote from Descartes and runs through the usual tropes about the mind-body connection and basic human duality. None of it is quite as profound as Barthes thinks it is and, like Barthes has no problems extrapolating on the premise in ways that are sometimes plausible and sometimes whimsical.
Like “Being John Malkovich,” “Cold Souls” examines the fragile insecurities of the character actor, the fungible identity and ever-changing levels of fame. Giamatti plays himself as a variation of other archetypal Giamatti performances, but anybody who has ever interviewed the guy can tell you that reality isn’t all that different. There aren’t many actors who play melancholy better than Giamatti and nobody mixes melancholia with comedy as well and it’s the star’s line readings that prevent “Cold Souls” from drifting off into a metaphysical Neverwhere in its last act.
What Giamatti lacks is a clear emotional foil, the Kate Winslet to his Jim Carrey, were this “Eternal Sunshine.” With Giamatti’s real wife Elizabeth producing, Emily Watson steps in as his wife and is sadly wasted. Also wasted is Lauren Ambrose as the receptionist at the soul bank. Dina Korzun’s soul-swapping mule forges a connection with Giamatti, but their bond is, by necessity, chilly and not enough to hold the movie up.
I don’t think “Cold Souls” currently” has distribution, but I’d expect it to find a home with an indie soon. With Barthes’ assertive visual style — downplayed futurism and fun with wracking focus — and Giamatti’s performance, any company worth its salt should be able to cut together a Kaufman-style trailer making it look like a mindbending comedy.
That’s kinda what I wish the movie was, also.