Balancing on a tightrope between deadpan humor and pathos, and between reality and fantasy, the film presents Paul Giamatti as himself, agonizing over his interpretation of Uncle Vanya. Paralyzed with anxiety, he stumbles upon a solution via a New Yorker article about a high-tech company promising to alleviate suffering by deep-freezing souls. Giamatti enlists their services, intending to reinstate his soul once he survives the performance. But complications ensue when a mysterious, soul-trafficking 'mule," transporting product to and from Russia, 'borrows" Giamatti's stored soul for an ambitious, but unfortunately talentless, soap-opera actress. Rendered soulless, he is left with no choice but to follow the trail back to bleak St. Petersburg.
French-born debutant director Sophie Barthes has placed a great deal of faith in her leading man Paul Giamatti, who plays a twisted, anxious, depressed version of his real-life artistic self in her chilly parable, Cold Souls.
As actor Paul Giamatti grapples during final rehearsals with the existential complexities of Uncle Vanya, he becomes a nervous, twitchy burden on all those around him, including his patient director Frank (Michael Tucker) and his understanding wife, Claire (Emily Watson). Giamatti’s interpretation of his own angst almost sucks the life out of New York City itself.
Devoid of self-confidence and unable to get to the essence of Vanya’s emotions because he has no understanding of his own, Giamatti becomes intrigued by an article in The New Yorker. Titled 'Soul Storage’, it profiles a company that conducts soul removals and unshackles individuals from their weighty spiritual selves.
Giamatti meets with company founder Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn) and agrees to a temporary soul extraction – just to get through the torturous role of 'Vanya’ – but, unaware of the international black market for American souls, he becomes embroiled in a Russian soul-trafficking ring. A soft-hearted 'mule’ Nina (Dina Korzun) has reluctantly seized Giamatti’s frozen soul, returned to Russia and transplanted it into the conscience of ambitious, talentless starlet Sveta (Katheryn Winnick), girlfriend of criminal kingpin Dimitri (Sergey Kolesnikov).
Riffing on the pent-up ball of introverted energy he created as Miles, his breakout role in Alexander Payne’s Sideways (2004), Giamatti makes himself a difficult person to like. However, Barthes provides him with ample leeway for faux self-exploration: he discovers his place in the Hollywood celebrity chain (upon learning the Russian gangster was aiming higher, Giamatti seethes one of the film’s best lines – 'Well, I’m really very sorry things didn’t work out with Al Pacino!"); he interrogates the worth of The Method (his first rehearsal sans soul, in which his unbridled egotism renders Vanya a randy, loudmouth jerk, is very funny); and finally, somewhat anti-climatically, he learns the value of shared emotions in creating the fully-formed human being (yawn).
In the film’s production notes, Barthes admits her script was originally written for Woody Allen, whose 50-year celluloid struggle with his own displaced notion of the world and his place in it would have had great resonance and laughs than Giamatti’s Giamatti (reports say Allen felt the concept to close to his own sci-fi send-up, 1973’s classic Sleeper).
Most perplexing is Barthes’ wobbly control of her own conceit – soul storage. Early scenes between Giamatti’s bug-eyed pretzel of a neurotic and Dr. Flintstein scientist-salesman, in which the two discuss the value of the soul and the benefits a soulless existence can offer, are crisply written and a joy to watch. But the rather silly Russian soul-trafficker subplot takes over and the focus shifts from an inspirationally-absurd existential fantasy to a goofy science-fiction road-trip comedy – not without its own charms, but certainly nowhere near as nourishing as the first half of the film promises.
Comparisons between Cold Souls and Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich are obvious and unavoidable (right down to the oh-so-cool American poster art, which uses the Russian 'Matryoshka doll’ formation to symbolise the peeled layers of Giamatti’s psyche). It is not a comparison that serves Cold Souls well – the film’s wavering tone, charmless central character and diminishing narrative returns go to show just how good a job Jonze and scripter Charlie Kaufman did with ...Malkovich. But Barthes’ first film indicates a fearless, imaginative writer/director with a great deal more to offer audiences with her future projects; if Cold Souls isn’t always easy to warm to, it certainly lights the fire of a talent worth watching.