David Strathairn and Paul Giamatti, in 'Cold Souls'

Dir. Sophie Barthes
(2009, PG-13, 101 min)
★ ★ ★

Cold Souls starts with a premise worthy of Charlie Kaufman, whose screenplays — including Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — are founded in one-of-a-kind ideas deepened by the writer’s emotional and philosophic intelligence. Written and directed by Sophie Barthes, it’s quirky, funny, and frequently moving in its consideration of a world where we could literally remove our souls — those burdensome conduits of love, despair, ennui, and all else that makes us human — but it doesn’t rise to greatness because it shackles itself to a plot that doesn’t allow it to explore its implications as well as it could.

Paul Giamatti stars as himself, about to star in a stage production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and suffering existential angst. He can’t separate himself from his characters anymore, he says, and the crushing weight of his feelings threatens to derail his life and career. He finds an article in The New Yorker about a “soul storage” business that is exactly what it sounds like: the company disembodies the human soul and safely stores it so that its owner can resume his life free of suffering.

At first, the film is fascinating and whimsical as Paul gets used to his new, peculiar soullessness. He stares blankly, is inattentive, slack. He makes a heartless comment at a dinner with friends that he doesn’t realize is heartless because he’s incapable of empathy. There’s a wonderful moment in a soul-stimulation chamber — which looks like a futuristic photo booth crossed with an Easter egg — in which he’s presented with a fluffy rabbit and is indifferent to its cuteness. Is it worth losing sensitivity to rid ourselves of negative thoughts and emotions? This is the heavy theme Barthes undertakes, but through humor she avoids turning it into a ponderous lecture.

Giamatti gives a remarkable performance as versions of himself. We see him in various rehearsals for Uncle Vanya — first with his soul, then without — and the differences he plays out are flamboyantly comic, but precise. In one version he is full of pathos, and in the next he’s tone-deaf, unable to access or even imitate credible human emotion. These scenes, directly engaging the idea of soul-extraction, are the film’s best. Our modern society increasingly values expedience above all else, so the idea of the soul as mere inconvenience is a pointed commentary of the times.

Then comes a black-market soul-swapping conspiracy plot that isn’t bad, per se, but isn’t the direction I was hoping for. Paul’s soul is stolen and trafficked to Russia, where it is implanted in a frivolous Russian soap star, but for the purposes of the story the soul becomes a mere object to be retrieved, and Barthes misses great opportunities. How does the soul of Paul Giamatti work within the starlet? Does it alter her behavior, her mannerisms? It doesn’t seem to. Paul, missing his soul, rents one that was anonymously “donated” by a Russian poetess, but he too looks, sounds, and acts exactly like himself, with only a few ambiguous dreams and excursions to Brighton Beach to distinguish from his normal behavior.

Dina Korzun plays a character of great potential: Nina, who transports souls across the Atlantic within her mind and has been left with the residue of the personalities that have been implanted and extracted. What a strange amalgam of behaviors she might exhibit with the souls of men and women, young and old, rich and poor, of various races, cultures, and nationalities at odds within her — so why is the film only interested in her as a mule for illegal goods?

The premise, which reportedly came to Barthes in a dream, has built-in fascination; she takes it and runs with it, but only about half as far as she could go. There’s nothing wrong with Cold Souls; it’s a good film whose only flaw is that it could have been a great one.