‘Cold Souls’ finds Paul Giamatti ruminating on life’s most vexing questions — such as why his eternal soul looks like a garbanzo bean
“Cold Souls” (opening Friday at the Nickelodeon) is a deftly absurdist little comedy, wrestling with some big concepts. Behind it are two really clever ideas – that the soul is an actual thing in the body, really no different than a gall bladder, that can be removed, if need be; and that some people would be better off after a soul-ectomy.
The star here is gloomy-but-funny Paul Giamatti, the bane of Merlot drinkers everywhere (or, at least those who say “Sideways”). Writer/director Sophie Barthes makes the most of Giamatti’s doleful public image by casting him as an actor named Paul Giamatti. (Only those who know Mr. Giamatti well can say whether he’s actually playing himself here, I suppose).
Giamatti finds himself struggling with the title role in Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” feeling in rehearsals that something is holding him back from fully inhabiting Vanya. Looking for a quick fix, he spies an article in the New Yorker profiling a local company that extracts and even transplants people’s souls. Anxious, but curious, he visits the company’s amiable gray-maned lead scientist (David Strathairn) and before he’s really sure he’s doing the right thing, he’s being pushed into a giant MRI-style device that neatly and painlessly takes out his soul.
The joke here is that the thing is small enough to be left behind for the Tooth Fairy. “It’s a chickpea!” Giamatti sputters, looking at his soul rolling around in the bottom of a large glass jar.
Yes, we’re clearly in “Being John Malkovich” territory here though “Souls” isn’t quite as zany as Charlie Kaufman’s now classic sci-fi comedy. French writer/director Barthes could have gone over the top with this conceit, but she instead sets up a contemplative little what-if experiment where the comedy is so refined as to be almost invisible.
The now soul-free Giamatti finds himself unburdened by the neurotic quirks of his personality, and though the rewards are palpable – he’s suddenly boundless in his portrayal of Vanya – the price is steep. Without his soul, Giamatti doesn’t quite know who he is, and his relationship with his wife (Emily Watson, who, we should add, is not really Giamatti’s wife) suffers as a result.
The comedy’s restraint is all the more evident since much of the second half of the film is shot in wintry Russia – it seems that the soul-extraction company has a lucrative sideline with the Russian soul black market and, in a bizarre mix-up, Giamatti has to travel to Russia to find his misplaced soul (This will mark the first and only time Giamatti is mistaken for Al Pacino).
The shifting moods of the film give it an appealing kind of low-key charm. Cheap jokes never see the light of day, and Giamatti’s performance really gets to the heart of what part a soul plays in your day-to-day personality. Though the film never really addresses the vexing questions – “What is a soul?” “Is it immortal and unique to the individual?” – it elevates the comic possiblities of such a weird scenario and, by doing so, makes an emotionally resonate story that’s really … what’s the word? … soulful.