Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Cold Souls: Grade C


Cold Souls (2009)

Paul Giamatti, David Straithairn, Emily Watson, Dina Korzun, Sergey Kolesnikov; Writer-Director Sophie Barthes.

Paul Giamatti plays Paul Giamatti, a depressed American actor having trouble performing in a production of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. He gives a humorous “bad” performance to illustrate. Even more depressed then, he decides to have his soul removed. A hi-tech New York medical company with gleaming white offices, headed by a confident and reassuring doctor (Straithairn) puts him into what looks like a giant CAT-scan machine. His soul in a jar, looks like a chickpea. It is stored safely in a vault.

The new, soulless Paul feels lighter, unburdened by “dark thoughts” but his acting in Uncle Vanya is now bizarre, flippant, way off the mark. His wife (Watson – who is wasted in this movie) thinks he is having an affair because he has become so distant. But when Paul tries to get his soul reinstalled, it is missing, having been stolen by the Russian mafia, which traffics in souls. Instead, he rents the soul of a Russian poet and gives a respectable Uncle Vanya, although still very much Paul Giamatti with all his trademark twitches and quirks. Finally, he travels to St. Petersberg to retrieve his soul from a Russian gangster (Kolesnikov in a standout performance). Then he walks on a beach and the movie is over.

The clever premise and story development is the best part of the movie, and there are some good jokes in the beginning, such as whether scientists and celebrities have souls, whether “size matters,” and so forth. But it is all just silliness. There is no exploration of what a soul is or why it matters. Nobody behaves much differently than they did before with or without a soul or with somebody else’s soul implanted. The Uncle Vanya performances were arbitrary, none of them expressing anything about souls or soullessness. The Russian woman did not start to act like Paul Giamatti when she had his soul – that would have been terrific.

So there is no intellectual or philosophical point to the movie. It begins as a comedy, then turns into a sort of thriller, then loses its way altogether. It alludes to “Being John Malkovich,” a somewhat similar film that was outrageously creative, as this one is not. And finally, I have to say, Paul Giamatti is an acquired taste. His mercurial, hammy emoting really doesn't do well in a dramatic role, and he never plays any character other than Paul Giamatti, which the movie emphasizes. The film is a great idea but a missed opportunity.

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