Cold Souls opens Friday in select theaters
Writer-director Sophie Barthes has said in interviews that a dream about Woody Allen was the inspiration for her debut film, and Cold Souls—a limp comedy hung on an unfunny running joke about a chickpea—suffers greatly compared with a hilarious and inventive movie like Sleeper, with which it has some superficial similarities.
Paul Giamatti plays a character named Paul Giamatti, an actor suffering from intense malaise that's exacerbated by his current role as Ivan in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. When he learns about the radical new medical procedure of soul extraction in The New Yorker, he can't help but look into it. A certain Dr. Flintstein (funny, straight-faced David Strathairn) tells him that after soul removal his dark thoughts will cease, so he signs up for a procedure that will put that pesky, ineffable substance into a jar. The rest of the movie is—surprise!—about Paul realizing he does indeed want his soul, no matter how many problems it causes.
After Paul has his soul removed, we are treated to a series of scenes showing the downside of the operation, and they are all obvious inventions: He can't make love to his wife (Emily Watson, criminally wasted here); he says inappropriate things at a dinner party; he loses his chops as an actor. What's so lazy about these scenes is how perfunctory and obvious they are. As soon as we see the dinner party, we know Paul will do something problematic; as soon as his wife nestles up to him, we know he'll be unresponsive. Cold Souls is made up almost entirely of these kinds of scenes whose points are obvious from the establishing shot and that play out to bland, predictable results.
One of the reasons Paul has his soul removed is that he can't tell where the character he plays in Vanya stops and he starts. Before the soul extraction, Paul's connection with Ivan is too strong; afterward, he loses touch with the character altogether. In a key scene that is supposed to display this problem, Paul ruins a rehearsal with a hammy attempt to make Vanya comedic. One big problem with the scene is that Giamatti himself tends to overact anyway, so he doesn't have anywhere to go when he wants to make his character's performance excessive. It's supposed to be a funny scene, but it only seems to underline just how one-dimensional Giamatti is so much of the time.
When Paul decides he wants to get his soul back, it turns out—surprise!—it's gone missing. Teaming up with Nina, a Russian mule who smuggles souls between New York and St. Petersburg, he goes abroad to find it. This plot turn holds promise, as the dumpy and bearded Giamatti plays sleuth alongside the severe, white-blond Dina Korzun, but like the rest of the movie it fizzles instead of crackling with the tension or excitement that their mission could bring to the screen. Constructed from a premise that is set up to meditate on an obvious point—we are troubled creatures, but that's what makes us human—Cold Souls wastes the only chance it has to work its way out of its own limitations.