Irony, intrigue over a literally lost soul

In "Cold Souls," Lauren Ambrose is Soul Storage Co.'s receptionist, and Paul Giamatti plays himself in his intelligent, neurotic screen persona.
In "Cold Souls," Lauren Ambrose is Soul Storage Co.'s receptionist, and Paul Giamatti plays himself in his intelligent, neurotic screen persona.
Posted: August 21, 2009

If you could unburden yourself of your woes and worry, the angst-y tune whistling in the back of your head, and just move through life with a clear mind and an easy gait, wouldn't you?

That's the question Paul Giamatti asks himself in Cold Souls, a clever existential comedy in which the Sideways star plays himself, and in which Giamatti, restlessly ensconced in his Brooklyn living room, reads an article about a company that promises to do just that: extract your soul from your body, and thereby remove the edge and dread from your being.

Cuisinart-ing Sartre, Descartes, Beckett, Faust, film noir, and cheesy sci-fi (the soul extraction machine looks like a pop-art take on a CAT scan), Cold Souls - from writer/director Sophie Barthes - has a discernible Charlie Kaufman influence, too. The real-life actor guy thing is straight out of the Kaufman-scripted Being John Malkovich, and the whole Soul Storage Co. setup, with its mild-mannered doctor at the helm (David Strathairn as David Flintstein, "world-renowned neurologist and one of the leading lights in the burgeoning field of paraneurology"), is not unlike Lacuna Inc., the memory erasure service provided by Tom Wilkinson in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

But derivations are beside the point. Cold Souls entertains on its own terms, delivering irony and suspense as Giamatti discovers that his soulless self is a terrible, terrible actor (he's rehearsing Uncle Vanya, and he's awful!) and that when he goes to reclaim his chickpea-size soul, it has been misplaced, lost.

What follows is a tricky tangle of intrigue involving Russian black marketeers, trading in stolen souls, and smuggling them in and out of the States using beautiful Russian "mules" disguised with wigs and fake fingerprints. There is, quite literally, much soul searching to do.

Barthes, with her off-screen partner Andrij Parekh providing the lovely cinematography, plays all this with a mix of melancholy and surrealist whimsy. This is her first feature, but she has a steady hand, and a steady - playing it unsteady - leading man in Giamatti. The actor works his intelligent, anxious, neurotic screen persona, but does it in a way that makes it seem both lived-in and a little outside itself - winking from the sidelines. Emily Watson is Claire, Giamatti's understandably distraught spouse. Katheryn Winnick is Sveta, the mob-connected Russian soul smuggler, and Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under, Starting Out in the Evening) beams brightly as the Soul Storage Co.'s receptionist.

In the film, the Soul Storage Co. is on Roosevelt Island, between Manhattan and Queens - you can take a tram to get there. And on the Web, the ersatz operation has its own enjoyably elaborate site, www.thesoulstoragecompany.com. De-souling is just a click away.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/.

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