Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
August 2009

There's no business like soul business...

Underwhelming 'Cold Souls' follows great concept into ordinary territory

Cold Souls
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Director: Sophie Barthes
Screenplay: Sophie Barthes
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Dina Korzun, David Strathairn, Lauren Ambrose, Katheryn Winnick and Emily Watson
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 41 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

There's a certain misconception about movies that, when judging them, they can or should be compartmentalized. Was the acting good? How about the cinematography? What about the dialogue? And the music?

Except movies aren't necessarily the sum of their parts; they're the result of something much bigger. The most common problems I see at the movies these days are issues of tone, structure and style. It's not a matter of what your material is, but how you approach that material. In the case of Cold Souls, writer/director Sophie Barthes came up with a great concept and reduced it to the nuts and bolts of a screenwriting manual.

The film is ostensibly about a man trying to find himself, with actor Paul Giamatti playing actor Paul Giamatti as he loses, and then attempts to regain, his soul. Literally. So we have a high-concept science-fiction outline that, sheerly by casting an actor as himself, reminds us of its own self-awareness - and yet Barthes takes the most practical storytelling approach possible.

We can see the film going in the wrong direction from the very beginning. We see Giamatti struggling through rehearsal of Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya." we see him return home, agitated. And guess what's waiting for him when he gets there? A possible solution to his problems, of course! It's a burgeoning craze called "soul storage," according to an article in The New Yorker. Thanks to the advances of Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn), the soul can be extracted from the body and stored in a warehouse. The result, Flintstein argues, will be a tremendous sense of freedom and understanding.

Cut to Giamatti going to the clinic and having the procedure done.

You see how easy that was? Before we've even gotten a chance to get settled into the reality the film has (or should have) created for us, we're entrenched in Plot Mode. From there, Cold Souls turns into just another one of those movies where a guy takes a journey trying to find something.

Oddly enough, the most interesting character in the film is not Giamatti, but a Russian woman named Nina (Dina Korzun), a soul "mule" - she makes her living having souls implanted into and extracted from her body for a black-market soul trafficker.

The whole trafficking issue is the most intriguing concept in the film; I only wish Barthes would have done something more with it. There is a late development that reveals something rather poignant about Nina's fate - something far more interesting than anything to do with Giamatti's character - but it's treated almost as a throwaway epilogue moment.

Barthes is not without ideas, nor is her filmmaking inept, by any means. Cold Souls has its share of fine moments - primarily the very funny sequences between Giamatti and Strathairn - but so much seems to be missing, too. I felt during the film how Giamatti must have felt during the disturbing moments following his operation.

Simply, Cold Souls lacks both the potency and the curiosity that such a rich premise deserves. It fails to really delve into the issues of identity that so clearly mark its surface. Barthes never emphasizes what she feels is essential about the soul, or about identity, or about Giamatti's plight - or, for that matter, Nina's. Instead, she's content to just tell a clean story, even if that means sapping it of what's most compelling.

Looking at the film's ideas on paper, one can't help but be reminded of Charlie Kaufman. It does seem like Barthes furiously scrolled through the screenplays of Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation. and Synecdoche, New York and thought, "I can do that." I doubt that's a fair assessment of her creative process, but the parallels can't be avoided. However, if you're going to emulate a screenwriter, you couldn't pick much better, so Barthes' ambitions are in the right place.

Then again, I can only think of Kaufman tackling a premise like this one. Oh, what a movie that could have made.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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