Paul Giamatti has sold his soul. Not to the Devil, mind you, but to a corporation. He hasn't actually sold it, either, but it has been stolen and sold on the Russian black market. This is the premise for Cold Souls, an imaginative though anticlimactic comedy-drama from director Sophie Barthes.
Giamatti plays himself, an actor who has lost his way. The frazzled man is bogged down by his participation in a production of the Chekov play "Vanya," his lethargic marriage and an overwhelming sense of nothingness. After seeing an ad in the paper, he learns that what may be holding him back is his soul, so he does what any logical person would do: he has it removed. Though his life takes a turn for the better, he soon discovers that his empathy and emotions have grown empty. When he tries to reclaim his soul, however, he discovers that it (which looks like a chickpea) has been transported to Russia to be used by a young woman who wants to become an actress.
Cold Souls is a quirky little movie in the vein of Charlie Kaufman films such as Synecdoche, New York and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, albeit without the same layered complexities or filmmaking craft. Giamatti is terrific, as always, delivering a neurotic, frumpy performance as himself (which reminded me of some other Kaufman stories). Aided by a good cast including Emily Watson and David Strathairn, Giamatti elevates the material.
The material, as it turns out, is decent. Nothing great, nothing terrible. It moves along at a fair enough pace, presenting some humorous moments and clever turns. And yet, for whatever reason - perhaps an unfair reason - it does bear similarities to Kaufman's films, all of which are better written, more imaginative and more entertaining than Cold Souls. The comparison leaves Cold Souls on the outside looking in.
The movie's failure to elevate itself falls primarily on its lack of dynamics, which in turn falls on the shoulders of writer/director Sophie Barthes. The film lives up to its name, as it comes off as very cold and empty. The vacuum allows for Giamatti to chew scenery and turn some of the dialogue into comedic gold, but Barthes does nothing to assist her talent. The picture never snaps out of its dreary appearance, even when things are heating up, making it hard to relate to the world where the characters reside.
Cold Souls is a decent comedy-drama, but it's neither funny nor serious enough to be considered anything more than a second-rate film.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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