The notion behind Cold Souls' story is funnier than it's actually depicted on screen. Paul Giamatti plays an actor named (oddly enough) Paul Giamatti, although he's not the guy from Sideways or Duets; he's a stage actor rehearsing Chekov's Uncle Vanya and struggling to get into the character. Cold Souls is a quirky dark comedy, a thought-provoking mystery, as well as a metaphor-ridden quiz. It's edgy enough to pass as weird but formulaic enough for the audience to follow. With interwoven doses of art-house film stamped throughout, it's guaranteed to keep your attention.
Unfortunately for Giamatti, the parallel storyline of the flick tells of a Russian soul trafficking group that uses mules to transport souls back and forth from the US. His stolen soul is now in the body of a Russian soap opera star. From this premise, much of the film's focus is on the state of being without a soul, trying to come to grips with reality and what it would be like to be someone else. Giamatti briefly houses the soul of a Russian poet, saying, "This is just too heavy."
Cold Souls is deliberately slow paced and tirelessly focused on Giamatti's thinking and squirming process. Giamatti, a supremely talented actor, exhibits chops heretofore unseen in his repertoire. He's convincing as himself but doesn't really play himself. The real Giamatti probably doesn't stew so much over the meaning of life; that's not his apartment in the film and he's not married to Emily Watson. Watson (as Claire) brilliantly brings a pivotal awareness when she realizes something is wrong with her now soulless husband. Strathairn is great as the smarmy soul surgeon. The gleeful look in his eye when he states, "We can de-soul or disembowel the soul" is priceless. Dina Korzun as Nina the drug trafficking mule gives the film a boost as we watch her deteriorate from transporting souls in her body.
Writer/director Sophie Barthe shows indie-film style with colorful visuals as she cuts back and forth from scenic Russian landscapes and dark industrial sites to sanitized soul storage units. Her narrative touches on everything from drug trafficking to cloning to spirituality. Rather than preaching about the evils of corporate greed, Barthe focuses on the personal. She traffics in emotions and existentialism, yet manages to weave in post-9/11 homeland security as a commentary on freedom as individuality.
This isn't the mind-bending stuff of Charlie Kaufman, but this surreal flick nonetheless affords a very gratifying experience. The moral that life isn't about escaping pain, rather that suffering is an essential part of the human experience, rings true.
Cold Souls ★★★✩✩
Starring Paul Giamatti, David Strathairn, Emily Watson, Dina Korzun. Written and directed by Sophie Barthe. Rated PG-13