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David M. Evans
Civilization and its discontents. Paul, an actor preparing for "Uncle Vanya" on Broadway, is mired in ennui. His agent tells him about an office where he can put his soul in storage. He does so then discovers that being soulless helps neither his acting nor his marriage; he returns to the office and rents, for two weeks, the soul of a Russian poet. His acting improves, but his wife finds him different, he sees bits of the borrowed soul's life, and he's now deep in sorrow. He wants his own soul back, but there are complications: it's in St. Petersburg. With the help of Nina, a Russian who transports souls to the U.S., he determines to get it back. Who has he become? Written by
The film was inspired by a dream Sophie Barthes had in which Woody Allen discovers that his soul looks just like a chickpea. Barthes wrote the first draft with Allen in mind for the lead role. See more »
Dmitri tells the actress not to worry that Paul's soul looks like and is the size of a chickpea, telling her that Al Pacino won three Oscars. Al Pacino has actually only won one Oscar (Best Actor in 1992, Scent of a Woman). See more »
The easiest, and laziest, way to describe the new movie "Cold Souls" is to compare it to "Being John Malkovich." Yes, both feature a well-respected film actor playing a character named and slightly modeled after them, and find "themselves" in fantastical situations. The only other way they could be logically compared: They're both delightful and dexterously hilarious.
"Cold Souls" has a simple enough concept. Paul Giamatti (brilliantly played by Paul Giamatti) is an actor in New York City currently in rehearsals for a Broadway production of Anton Chekov's "Uncle Vayna." But with all the pressures of being famous and trying to decide which film project to choose next, Paul is having some trouble connecting to the role, and he believes he might have found his answer when he reads an article in the New Yorker magazine about an experimental process that claims to be able to remove someone's soul. Paul visits the clinic out on Roosevelt Island (an apparently soulless plot of land between Manhattan and Brooklyn, for those unfamiliar with the city's landscape, that was also used as the location of Jennifer Connelly's haunted apartment in the movie "Dark Water" a few years back) and after being assured of the validity of the clinic's claims by its founder and operator Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn), signs up.
At first, Paul does experience a very mild sense of relief to be divested of most of his soul. (It is explained that, after the extraction process, a small amount of residual soul remains.) His sex life with his wife (Emily Watson), and his coworkers on the stage do notice a slight but immediate different with their star, but Paul is still less than satisfied. Luckily for him, the clinic does also offer the ability to borrow some souls on hold, and even luckier, there happens to be what he is told is the soul of a Russian poet at the facility.
But, alas, it goes both ways. A side plot features Nina (Dina Korzun), a Russian woman whose job is to smuggle souls between New York and St. Petersberg. Her boss's young trophy wife wants to be an actress, and he commands Nina to get the soul of one of the actors on his wife's list, which includes several A-list, Oscar-winning actors. When Nina gets to the clinic in New York, however, she discovers there is only one actor with a soul in storage. Paul Giamatti, who is not on the list. No matter. She loads Paul's soul into herself and takes it back to Russia, telling her boss and his wife it's the soul of one of the actors on her list.
Paul, in the meantime, is starting to have some strange reactions to his new soul. He starts having bizarre visions of places he's never been to and people he's never met. It isn't until he visits Dr. Flintstein to get this soul removed and get his put back in that the theft of his soul is discovered, spinning the narrative into an unexpected but still poignant direction, as he uncovers what is happening in Russia and teaming with Nina to get his soul back.
When a film stars the likes of Paul Giamatti, Emily Watson and David Straithairn, there is little chance it would somehow be a lesser effort, even with a first-time feature director. Sophie Barthes, however, has a lot more heart and... well, soul, than the average tyro filmmaker. Barthes, who also wrote the film, says she was inspired after dreaming of Woody Allen discovering he has the soul of a chickpea. It's a cute idea, and one that could have been an utter failure in the hands of a less mature artist. Thankfully, Barthes doesn't appear to be interested in paying homages or outright ripping off anything another film or filmmaker she enjoyed in the past. Barthes seems content to just entertain by making you laugh, and in this regard, she exceeds remarkably well.
Much of that success comes from having a fearless performer like Paul Giamatti willingly allowing himself to be human. The movie's Paul Giamatti is not that likable a guy on a number of occasions (not unlike Harvey Pekar from "American Splendor" or Miles Raymond from "Sideways"), and it is the rare performer who will take that chance with an audience when the vast majority of the film is riding on his shoulders. Giamatti and Barthes effortlessly guide the movie from pathos to mirth and from eccentric character comedy piece to an international hunt for the essence of what makes us human. It's also wonderful to see David Straithairn do comedy again, a genre he rarely visits and one he should return to time and time again.
Best of all, "Cold Souls" is that rare type of movie that will make you laugh at many different levels, and will make you laugh as you think about it after the movie has ended. There are several wonderfully subtle jabs about celebrity and humanity buried deep in the text, ones that (at least by this writer) will be left to the viewer to discover and reflect upon themselves.
My rating: A-
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