With “Cold Souls,” actor Paul Giamatti moves into the front rank of film actors working today – as fascinatingly protean a performer as you’ll find.
As good as he’s been in movies great and small, he gives what may turn out to be a signature performance in Sophie Barthes’ “Cold Souls” – as an actor named Paul Giamatti.
“Cold Souls” is an astonishing directorial debut: at once ridiculously funny, startlingly provocative and movingly melancholy. It’s no coincidence that the film includes telling excerpts of Anton Chekhovs “Uncle Vanya,” given its own Russian subplot and darker emotional currents.
Since I first saw “Cold Souls” at Sundance in January, I’ve been referring to it as a comedy. I stand by that description but, again, the use of Chekhov is far from coincidental.
The Giamatti in this film is in rehearsal for a production in which he is playing Vanya – and it’s killing him. “Lighten up – this is supposed to be a comedy,” his director, played by Michael Tucker, tells him when Giamatti admits that the role – a character drowning in his own failed expectations and untapped potential – is tearing him apart.
When his agent mentions an article in the New Yorker – about a facility that extracts and stores the human soul to allow people to live an untroubled life – a conflicted Giamatti goes to the company’s Roosevelt Island headquarters. There, an uberchipper CEO, Dr. Flintstein (the hilariously upbeat David Strathairn), describes the incredible lightness of being soul-free. So Giamatti undergoes the extraction; he comes out feeling noticeably unburdened, though he’s dismayed to discover that his soul resembles a garbanzo bean (“A chickpea?” he wails).
Though he discovers that he does feel better, the reaction of others to the new Paul – specifically, the director and Paul’s wife (Emily Watson) –convince Giamatti that he’s made a mistake. He tries implanting someone else’s soul (a Russian poet), but finds it too intense. When he finally asks for his own soul back, he is told that it is missing, smuggled to Russia, which does a whopping business in the unregulated soul market.
The levels on which Barthes is working here seem to grow exponentially every time you think about it. Without making a big deal about it, she touches upon everything from the sacred to the profane, the philosophical to the artistic, the pragmatic to the existential. Imagine a context in which to think about the human soul – or the idea of removing/losing/selling one’s soul – and it works within Barthes’ fanciful conceit. But, by having Giamatti play this all with a straight-face, she never allows it to become didactic. Indeed, when Giamatti’s wife, upon hearing what he’s done, asks in horror, “Are you soul-less now?”, it is exceptionally funny.
Barthes came up with the plot after dreaming about standing in line behind Woody Allen at the soul storage place and listening to him complain that his soul looked like a chickpea. Fearing that Allen would never agree to act in the film she eventually wrote, she crafted it specifically for Giamatti – who agreed to do the film as soon as he read it. It’s unimaginable with any other actor.
There’s a comic desperation to Giamatti that is painfully funny, but which can shift to poignant in a second. As Giamatti skulks around St. Petersburg in a funny fur hat, in the company of the slinky Dina Korzun, he oozes desperation that is part human survival, part artistic ego, as he tries to convince a hard-edged Russian gangster to give him his soul back. Talk about a deal with the devil. Korzun meets Giamatti’s strangled outrage with arched eyebrows, as if his response is something that never would have occurred to her. Her masterful deadpan perfectly complements Giamatti’s unsuccessful efforts at restraint.
“Cold Souls” is the most imaginative and funny American film since “Being John Malkovich.” It’s a late-summer surprise, a genuinely funny and thoughtful film that never quite goes where you expect it to.