At The Picture Show
There's no business like soul business...
Underwhelming 'Cold Souls' follows great concept into ordinary territory
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
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
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
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
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