Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Movie Review: Cold Souls

Cold Souls ***
Directed By: Sophie Barthes.
Written By: Sophie Barthes.
Starring: Paul Giamatti (Paul), Dina Korzun (Nina), Emily Watson (Claire), David Strathairn (Dr. Flintstein), Katheryn Winnick (Sveta), Lauren Ambrose (Stephanie), Boris Kievsky (Oleg), Oksana Lada (Sasha), Natalia Zvereva (Anastasia), Rebecca Brooksher (Yelena).

Paul Giamatti is struggling with finding the heart of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, a role he will be playing on Broadway soon. Afraid that he will make a fool of himself, he thinks he may be able to connect better with Vanya if he can take himself out of the equation. When he reads an article in the New Yorker about a new procedure where he can have his soul removed, and stored in safety, he reluctantly decides to do it. But while he is now disconnected with himself, without a soul he finds he cannot connect with Vanya either. So he returns to the office and “rents” a soul of a Russian poet. While this helps his performance in Vanya, the soul is too big for him. He just wants his old soul back. But when he returns for the third time, he discovers that his soul is missing. Apparently, it has been smuggled out of the controller by a “soul mule” Nina (Dina Korzun), where it has been implanted into Russian soap star Sveta (Katheryn Winnick), who thinks she is getting the soul of Al Pacino.

Sophie Barthes’ Cold Souls would like nothing more than to be this year’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. That film after all was another one where a new technology that is meant to make human life easier, but all it really does it take away an essential part of what it means a human being. But Cold Souls is not nearly as good as Eternal Sunshine was. For one thing, this film is not as deliriously visually inventive, or quite as intelligently written as the other film, and for another with the exception of Paul Giamatti, the rest of the characters are not nearly as well defined. For another, it is impossible not to think of the previous film during pretty much every scene in this one. But considering this is Barthes’ first film, it is remarkable just how ambition she shows, and how good most of the film is.

Barthes lucked out by getting Giamatti for the lead role. Like John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich, he plays himself, but I suspect that both of these actors do not bare all that much resemblance to the versions of themselves that they play. But it hardly matters. Giamatti brilliantly plays off his own image as that actor that everyone knows, but no one can name. He plays himself as a flustered loser, who stutters and stammers his way through pretty much every scene in the movie. It is a brilliant performance, and considering that he is at the center of pretty much every scene in the film, it makes the film worthwhile. Also wonderful is David Straithairn as Dr. Flintstein, the man behind the Soul Storage place, who is part doctor, part New Age healer and part car salesman. Dina Korzun, an actress I did not know before this movie, does a very good job as the soul mule, who starts to feel for Giamatti, even though she no longer has a soul of her own. I do have to wonder however what talented actresses like Emily Watson and Lauren Ambrose saw in their cookie cutter roles in this film.

Overall, Cold Souls is an uncommonly intelligent movie. If it at times a little to subdued, it makes up for it by mining one interesting idea after another. The ending of the film is ambiguous, and at the same time heartbreaking. If Barthes does not quite succeed in accomplishing everything she set out to do in her debut film, he accomplishes enough to show that at some point in her career, she most likely will.

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