LOS ANGELES - People are so preoccupied with the importance of the soul, it's become its own cottage industry. Oprah Winfrey has devoted an entire series to the evolution of one's soul. If yours is hungry, you can feed it chicken soup.
But what if you just didn't need yours? What if you decided one day you'd be better off without a soul and just ... had it removed? That's the inspired and absurd premise of "Cold Souls," the feature debut from writer-director Sophie Barthes.
And who better to personify such existential hand-wringing than Paul Giamatti? His bug eyes, hunched carriage and exasperated delivery suggest that he constantly bears the weight of the world on his shoulders, even in a comedy or an action picture. Here, Giamatti plays himself - or a version of himself, not unlike John Malkovich in "Being John Malkovich," which is fitting. "Cold Souls" explores some of the same questions about identity, memory and reality that frequently arise in Charlie Kaufman's writing.
Paul is preparing to star in a production of Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" and rehearsals are vexing him. He's not enjoying the work - he just can't get it right.
One day, his agent suggests he read an article in The New Yorker magazine about a lab on New York's Roosevelt Island where they extract the soul and store it until you decide you need it again - unless you'd like to try someone else's, that is. The process is intended to alleviate worries and fears: Instead, you feel nothing at all.
David Strathairn is coolly amusing as the deadpan Dr. Flintstein who runs the place, which looks like a day spa designed by Stanley Kubrick. As Paul examines a row of souls being held in their cylindrical glass containers, the doctor explains that "they mostly come in dark tones - blacks, browns, greys." And so he's understandably horrified to find when his own soul comes out that it looks exactly like a chickpea (it's a neat little visual gag).
Barthes cuts back and forth between Paul's story and that of a Russian woman named Nina (a confident performance from Dina Korzun), who functions as a sort of "soul mule" for a guy running a black-market operation. She takes them in on one end and has them extracted on the other; trouble is, after so many transfers, she's got a build-up of residue in her body. And so, like Paul - whose path will eventually cross with hers - she's a bit mixed up about who she is herself. Katheryn Winnick is also very good as the soul merchant's trophy wife, a no-talent soap-opera star who wants the soul of an American actor (preferably Al Pacino, George Clooney or Sean Penn) to help her improve her craft.
These are all very surreal, inventive ideas, heightened by the dreamlike cinematography from Barthes' partner, Andrij Parekh; the scenes shot in St. Petersburg, for example, are simultaneously gauzy and bleak. The combination of themes and visuals does make "Cold Souls" feel a little slow, but it's also invigorating to walk out of a movie that actually makes you think - especially during this time of year.
"Cold Souls," a Samuel Goldwyn release, is rated PG-13 for nudity and brief strong language. Running time: 101 minutes. Three stars out of four.
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