An amusing slice of existential whimsy with an Eastern European bent, Cold Souls posits a world in which humans can have their souls extracted and implanted in each others' bodies. It's the sort of idea one can imagine Charlie Kaufman running wild with, but Sophie Barthes' writing-helming debut is too well-behaved and conventional, stylistically and metaphysically, to achieve the desired levels of creative lunacy. Marketing will need to emphasize the pic's goofy premise and Paul Giamatti's enjoyable performance to overcome cool but respectful critical response.
As Being John Malkovich allowed Malkovich to spoof himself, so Cold Souls hands its lead thesp a similar opportunity, albeit with less side-splitting results. Giamatti plays Paul Giamatti, a New York actor who's preparing for the title role in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya and finding it increasingly difficult to separate himself from the character.
A New Yorker magazine piece sends the emotionally exhausted thesp into the offices of Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn), who specializes in soul storage -- the science of temporarily removing up to 95% of a person's soul and all the emotional burdens that accompany it. Wary but desperate, Paul agrees to the operation and is pushed into a giant contraption that resembles a radiotherapy machine. His soul (which looks suspiciously like a garbanzo bean) is bottled for safekeeping, and he leaves a new man.
Trouble is, the new man can't act, and Paul soon returns to Dr. Flintstein, who obligingly loans him the soul of a Russian poet. Soon Paul is thriving in Uncle Vanya, but offstage, the borrowed soul starts making itself felt in the form of eerie dreams, and Paul's wife (an underused Emily Watson) feels alienated from a man who is clearly not entirely her husband.
A bizarrely integrated subplot follows striking Russian blonde Nina (Dina Korzun), who works as a mule for her homeland's black-market soul trade. Script contorts itself rather implausibly (even for a movie where implausibility is the rule) as it sends Paul and Dina on a madcap mission to Russia to retrieve his lost soul.
All this nonsense is tossed off with a droll matter-of-factness, and the pic generates some comic mileage from Giamatti's incredulous, is-everyone-insane-but-me reaction shots, particularly in the early consultation scenes with Strathairn's deadpan doc.
But aside from marveling at its own wacky (if finally somewhat thin) conceit and making a couple jokes at Giamatti's expense, the pic never mines any deeper levels of comedy; nor does it deliver that exhilarating Kaufman-esque sensation of getting lost in its own heady conundrums. Warmer than its title would suggest, Cold Souls is finally less a philosophical fantasia than a tale of empathy and human connection, beautifully summed up in its lyrical closing shot.
Giamatti has excelled at playing insecure malcontents before (Sideways); he's more open and relaxed here, but just as winning. Korzun prevails over a thinly written role that doesn't really gel until the third act.
While the pic might have benefited from a more visually offbeat approach, Andrij Parekh's cool, wintry lensing nicely approximates the tale's emotional register.