What is it that makes us human? What is it that makes each of us unique? Sophie Barthe’s Cold Souls takes on this heavy subject in a mind-bending and very meta story constructed with a lot of dark, subtle humour. Paul Giamatti, one of the most reliable actors working today, takes the lead, treating viewers to a bizarre journey of discovery from New York to Russia and back, and from lightness to darkness.
Giamatti stars as Paul Giamatti, famous American actor currently encountering trouble as he prepares to star in Uncle Vanya on Broadway. He’s invested too much in the character and lost the ability to separate himself from the role, making it impossible for him to effectively play it. His agent tells him about an article in The New Yorker about soul storage, a procedure that is supposed to make you feel lighter, more carefree. He goes to the clinic for a consultation with the soul storage mastermind (David Strathairn) and, though he continues to have some reservations, he decides to give it a try. His soul, which he learns resembles a chickpea, is extracted and he finds that he truly does feel less weighted down and freer, though he also feels bored and a bit disengaged from life. Without the baggage of his soul he’s now able to take on Uncle Vanya... the only problem is that without his soul, he has nothing to put into his work - and his performance, rather than being deep, simply becomes laughable.
Paul realizes that he needs his soul back but there’s a problem. Nina (Dina Korzun), a Russian soul mule, has “borrowed” his soul and taken it back to Russia at the request of her boss’ wife (well, sort of, she really wanted Al Pacino’s soul). Now Paul has to go to Russia and bargain for his soul or risk being without it for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, Nina’s occupation is swiftly catching up to her as the fragments of all the souls she’s transported from Russia to New York and vice versa, have built up to dangerous levels that may very well result in her no longer having any room for her own soul.
Though primarily a comedy, the film continues to raise the emotional stakes as the story progresses, reaching for deeper, more resonant levels. It aims to be a meditation on that elusive thing that makes us human, openly questioning what each of us would be without it and toying with ideas about who an individual might become if they forfeit their own soul for that of another. When it ventures into this more serious territory, Cold Souls ultimately reveals some of its major weaknesses. It talks a good game, but the film really isn’t as deep as it would like the viewer to think that it is. Though the story is engaging while it is unfolding, it doesn’t really resonate because all it really does is circle around the same unanswerable questions for a while and then fade to black. There isn’t enough weight to it to make it really meaningful, and the way that the film is put together isn’t unique or innovative enough to make it significant in a technical sense.
That being said, what works in Cold Souls works well. The humour is quite clever and very dry, particularly when Giamatti is involved in a scene. He approaches the material – even at its most absurd – in a very matter-of-fact, realist way. He plays several characters here: a fictionalized version of himself as tortured artist; a listless, unengaged man who has removed his soul; a man in pain as his body struggles against a temporarily borrowed soul; a man terrified that he may live the rest of the days without his personal soul. The character is ever shifting but Giamatti is able to play him in such a way that he never seems inconsistent, nor does he ever allow the character to become a two-dimensional parody. What he accomplishes with this performance is actually quite impressive, edged with dark humour but still keying into something very relatable.
Though Cold Souls is not without its charms, and Giamatti’s performance is certainly worth seeing, it never truly rises to the occasion. It’s the light version of the kind of story that Charlie Kaufman consistently tells so well, which just makes one wonder what he might have done with the premise. It’s not a bad film by any means, but it’s nothing particularly special either.