Sunday, February 7, 2010

Cold Souls (2009)

Cold Souls finds Paul Giamatti joining the weird list of actors playing fictionalized versions of themselves. As such, he stars as Paul Giamatti, a melancholy actor who’s having a devil of a time pulling off the lead in a Chekhov play. The problem? His own existential fears, guilt, and neuroses are getting in the way of him delivering a true, unburdened performance. He gets the answer to his problems in the form of an absurd company that offers a most unusual service: soul storage. By some never-explained technology, they’ve found a way to literally extract the human soul (it sort of looks like a grey blob of putty), and then place it in stasis in a storage locker. Free from the weight of their mortal quandaries, a doctor played by the great David Stathairn explains, the soulless are finally able to get down to the business of really living. Although skeptical, Giamatti accepts a brief soul extraction in order to get through the stress of performing on Broadway. But as you might expect, things don’t go so smoothly.

Cold Souls is supposedly based on a particularly bizarre dream that director Sophie Bathes once had, and it would have been much better served to go down that kind of abstract path, especially considering its premise. Instead, the whole thing is played oddly straight, and this gets in the way of it ever really paying off on its promising setup. We’re left with way too many questions, and some of the more interesting aspects of the story, like what its like to be “soulless” or how the soul really shapes a person’s world view, are either glazed over or written out of the script with throwaway lines. For his part, Giamatti certainly rises to the challenge of having to carry such a tough sell of a story. He provides the movie with all of its most memorable moments, and it’s his strange mannerisms and comic timing that allows it to remain pleasant and watchable even though it’s never as interesting as it should be.

Still, despite the undeniable fun of Giamatti’s performance, Cold Souls is ultimately one of the most disappointing movies I’ve caught up with in a while, if only because the central idea of its premise was so fascinating. Discussions of the soul are a decidedly esoteric thing, and trying to tackle them in a movie that is so conventional in its presentation was bound to be problematic. It might have all been better served as a piece of literature or as a one-note short film, but as it is, Cold Souls seems like it’s always struggling to find something concrete and tangible to actually be about. That’s a problem that even some solid performances and a clever setup will never find their way around.

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