In Theaters: Cold Souls
The debut feature from writer-director Sophie Barthes, Cold Souls opens with Paul Giamatti, playing Paul Giamatti—well, a version of Paul Giamatti, anyway—breaking down while rehearsing Uncle Vanya's Act IV monologue. "If I live to be 60, I'd have to live another 13 years," Vanya says, circles under Giamatti's red-rimmed eyes. "How could I do that? If I could just live what is left in a different way..." The director encourages his weeping star to lighten up: "It's not a tragedy. Where's your sense of humor?" Upon watching Cold Souls, a dour comedy that takes the whirligig inventiveness of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and gives it a solemn Russian twist, you may wonder the same.
Suffering a spiritual malaise he just can't shake, Paul, intrigued by a New Yorker article, visits Dr. David Flintstein (David Strathairn) in his offices at the Soul Storage Company, whimsically located on Roosevelt Island, that quasi-Manhattan, that island off the coast of the island off the coast of America. In the sleek, sterile Soul Storage offices, Flintstein explains to Paul that the source of his angst can be easily removed via the painless extraction of his soul.
Paul agrees, and after being eased into a machine that looks like the 1939 World's Fair version of an MRI, he's presented with his soul, which is the size and shape of a chickpea. A quick test confirms that Paul's soul has been removed: handed a fluffy bunny rabbit, Paul feels nothing. "We'll store your soul here," says Flintstein, "although if you'd like to avoid sales tax, we can ship it to our warehouse in New Jersey."
Cold Souls never quite reaches the absurd heights of this opening sequence again, even as Flintstein loses Paul's soul and Paul, accompanied by an intercontinental soul "mule" (Dina Korzun), chases down the Russian soap-opera actress it's inhabiting. That's because, unlike Michel Gondry—who, faced with a similar conceit in filming Charlie Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine, effortlessly deployed a thousand visual and storytelling tricks to illustrate it—Barthes is an elegant filmmaker but not an intuitively creative one. We never get a clear sense of why he's so desperate to get his soul back, or how he's changed. (The exception is an uncomfortably funny rehearsal scene in which a soulless Paul plays the same Chekhov speech that so tormented him, this time as light comedy.) Instead, we get long, beautifully photographed (by Andrij Parekh) sequences of Paul alone in the city, riding trains, sitting in cabs, visiting hotel rooms: "I feel empty," he says, but the movie never finds a way to dramatize that feeling.
By the time Cold Souls gets to St. Petersburg, you might be excused for hoping for some Taken-style Continental head-cracking—maybe Paul Giamatti holding a gangster up by his lapels, growling "Give me back my soul!" Alas, Paul's quest to get his soul back is played not as adventure, but as farce—farce, in fact, with the rhythms of tragedy. Despite some fully excellent shots of Paul Giamatti wearing a big fur hat, I wanted to ask Sophie Barthes: Where's your sense of humor?
In 1842, Nikolai Gogol published Dead Souls, a quirky work of satire in which a journeyman attempts to buy up the legal rights to deceased serfs—"dead souls"—from the landowners of a small town. Using those metaphysical assets as collateral, he hopes to secure a loan and make his fortune. It's no spoiler to say that the business model of Soul Storage turns out to be influenced by Gogol—but Cold Souls isn't influenced by Gogol enough. It's too muted to have a real satirical bite. See it for Giamatti's typically adroit performance, but don't expect to have your soul shaken.