I’ve always enjoyed humor with a nice strong vein of self deprecation. For an actor it has to be especially difficult to set yourself up as the target of humorous jabs. One bizarre format used mostly in really dark humor has the actor providing a twisted self portrait. One of the best examples of this was the peculiar little movie aptly titled ‘John Malkovich. Here a truly gifted dramatic actor ridicules himself for the sake of his art. It takes a lot for anyone to do this so when an actor is willing to purposely has to be given credit for such a bold move. The latest film to travel down this path is the dark comedy ‘Cold Souls’ staring one of the preeminent character actors of his generation, Paul Giamatti. He is the kind of actor who consistently pops up in the most unexpected roles; he has mastered parts running an incredibly broad spectrum from an evil script writer in the tween oriented ‘Big Fat Lair’ to the amazingly poignant portrayal in the award winning ‘Cinderella Man’. Some may feel that calling someone a character actor is a pejorative but it is actual high praise. A good character actor is like a chameleon; able to slip into any role with the ease of donning an old, comfortable pair of jeans. They are rarely type cast and typically among the hardest working members of their profession. Giamatti is one of the best in this often over looked field. Creating a dark comedy such as this is much more difficult than just trying to ply a few laughs from the audience, a good dark comedy, of which this film is a prime example twists your perception. ‘Cold Souls’ transcends the constraints of a single genre encompassing fantasy with a dollop of science fiction thrown in for good measure. This is a thought provoking, tightly constructed movie that will not fail to entertain.
The film was written and directed by Sophie Barthes. She was obviously greatly influenced by the wonderfully bizarre works of creative genius Charlie Kaufman but with a slightly lighter feel. ‘Cold Souls’ is Barthes first feature length film but judging from the quality of the craftsmanship and execution you would never think this was a freshman effort. If this is how she begins I greatly look forward to following her career as she progresses to her next project. The writing is tight, barely a piece of dialogue that doesn’t move the story forward yet exhibiting a great deal of economy. This is echoed by her stylistic directorial choices. The filming is straight forward and natural which is perfect and necessary to sell the more fantastic aspects of the plot as normal and possible. The primary purpose here may be entertainment but that is not mutually exclusive with providing a bitter sweet look at one of the oldest quagmires in human history; understand just what it is that makes us human and unique. This is the central topic of many scholarly endeavors of philosophy and theology nut I have never seen the matter tackled with the approach used here. I wish this film was around in my undergraduate days when my minor was existentialism. It certainly would have made the discussions livelier.
Paul (Paul Giamatti) is a successfully working actor but he is having difficulty with his current role. He just can’t cope with the weight of playing the lead in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. One afternoon Paul receives a phone call from his agent who casually mentions an article in the latest New Yorker magazine. Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn) has opened a rather odd business; the extraction and storage of a person’s soul. Paul reads how people feel lighter after the procedure and decides to investigate. In the doctor’s office Paul agrees to the procedure and after a few minutes in a formidable cylindrical device finds himself sitting in a waiting room holding s cylinder containing his soul. Some tests are performed by the pretty assistant (Lauren Ambrose) after which the doctor announces they removed 95% of Paul’s soul. After dropping the soul on the floor it restored to the container and removed for storage. Inter cut in the thread about Paul there is another story running in parallel. Nina (Dina Korzun) is a soul mule. Armed with high tech disguises including removable fingerprints, she travels between Russia and the States smuggling black market souls. The organization she works for is like any Russian crime syndicate you have seen in movies before except their trade is in souls. A few very nicely play expository scenes show Nina as a determined and successful business woman always looking to expand business. When Paul’s soul is waylaid into the black market it winds up in the hands of a Russian actress, Sveta (Katheryn Winnick) who thinks it belongs to Al Pacino. Paul wants his soul, which looks like a chickpea, back and hits the road to recover it.
This is very much an actor’s movie. Giamatti is remarkable in how he visualizes the change from normal to soulless. He conveys the condition with obsessive little ticks and alternations to his general affect. There is an excellent supporting cast here from Emily Watson as his wife (his real life wife produced) to Michael Tucker as the play’s director. Korzun gives an excellent performance as the soul transporter who has to cope with the residual souls she has carried building up within her. The cinematography by Andrij Parekh is some of the best I’ve seen in a long while. There is a stake contrast created from between the modernistic medical facilities and the dank places involved with the hunt for the soul. What makes Giamatti such an incredible actor is his ability to uncover the little unique traits that embodies a person. Here he has the opportunity to focus that receptive eye on himself with very entertaining result.