Movie Review: Cold Souls (2009)
Half of me wants to say that Cold Souls was an impulse decision—that I went to see it because the French guy sleeping on the top bunk at the hostel in Philadelphia was snoring much too loudly at ten in the morning and that once my eyes were open with the sun shining in them, I had no choice but to shower, eat, and amble around Philly until my friend got off of work and seeing a movie at the prestigious Ritz East—where I’d previously seen The Hurt Locker—seemed more worthwhile than the ultimate touristy endeavor, the guided tour.
However, that’s not the entire truth, as the other half of me wants to believe that I went and saw Cold Souls because I was ashamed at having missed Charlie Kaufman’s directing debut, last year’s Synecdoche, New York. I know that Kaufman has absolutely nothing to do with the film, but watch the trailer for this high concept movie and tell me that it doesn’t draw inspiration from Kaufman’s work. The giant soul-ripping machine, the emphasis on the eclectic actors-as-artistes set, or what happens when a person’s soul is snatched and put into a different body; all of these feel somewhat familiar, even if you’ve only seen one of Kaufman’s films.
Even though Kauffman’s fingerprints are smudging the lens a bit, director Sophie Barthes’ debut dances away from any direct accusations of copycating. It’s a different movie alright, for better and for worse. This is an extremely straightforward film with a clear narrative arc. Paul Giamatti, playing himself, finds that he is unable to get into the body of a character in one of Chekov’s plays. He reads an article in the New Yorker about soul storage, goes to check it out for himself, climbs into the giant CT Scan looking machine and—presto!out comes the soul, looking for all the world like a chickpea.
If you, like me, thought that what would follow would be a deep, meaningful excursion into one of life’s bigger questions, the actual events the movie depicts after Giamatti consents may be a little disappointing. There are the usual platitudes about beautiful souls, albeit that they come with a nice poetic flourish, but, for the most part, the movie becomes a limp-wristed dramedy about Paul’s attempt to get his soul back from a Russian mobster who has stolen it to give to his wife, who wants the soul of a great actor because she wants to do well in her role on a Russian sitcom.
This is what they call a “missed opportunity.” Take away all of the comparisons between Sophie Barthes’ debut film and the work of Kaufman, and you’ve still got a high concept that can go places and do things. True, soulless Paul Giamatti can’t act, can’t get it up, and is somewhat lecherous, that’s as far as the movie goes in examining the consequences of extracting your soul, looking at the damn thing, and putting it on ice. Paul is so unhappy that he requests a new soul, and, when that doesn’t work, his soul, and when that doesn’t work out because his soul’s in Russia, we’re so far away from the meat of the story that one wonders if there was any meat to begin with. The high concept is trivial in the face of the movie’s fetish for dry humor. Considering that I spent more of my time wondering if the soul storage procedure—which produces a change so minuscule that it probably wouldn’t be noticed were it not for the script’s pointing it out—was a sham played on poor Paul Giamatti and other like-minded readers of The New Yorker than I did laughing at any of the jokes, that’s a crying shame.
Still, I wanted to like Cold Souls, even after I left the theater and walked back to the hostel, wondering why I still wanted to like it. It’s the damned concept. Looking at my DVD collection, there are tons of films where quirky protagonists are forced to stand outside of themselves in order to get a better understanding of who they are and how they operate. This seems to be a favorite theme of indie film-making, the disaffected loner rising above whatever inner turmoil is stopping them from living life. It’s something I’ve seen done much better before. And considering that Synecdoche, New York is the next thing in my Netflix queue, I’m sure it’s something that I’ll see done much better in the future.
Cold Souls. Directed by Sophie Barthes. With Paul Giamatti (himself), Emily Watson (Claire), and Dina Korzun (Nina). Released August 7, 2009, by Samuel Goldwyn Films.
Paul Arrand Rodgers
Paul Arrand Rodgers has this blog, and that's about it.