Charlie Kaufman had nothing to do with Cold Souls. Nearly every review of writer-director Sophie Barthes’ debut feature mentions screenwriter and sometime director Kaufman, so I figure I ought to get it out of the way as soon as possible. Souls owes a lot to Kaufman’s work, particularly Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Barthes’ film generally suffers by comparison. It’s not as cerebral or as moving as Kaufman’s best work, but it has a lightness to it at times that makes it a better pure comedy than anything Kaufman’s ever made. Barthes gets bogged down in existentialism in the movie’s final third, but until then she engages in some fun absurdist humor, anchored by a strong performance from Paul Giamatti.
Giamatti here is playing himself, or at least a fictionalized version of himself. The movie’s Giamatti is struggling with his lead performance in a stage production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, and as a solution he turns to a company that extracts and stores people’s souls. Barthes plays this fantastical conceit basically straight, with David Strathairn giving a nice deadpan performance as the avuncular head of the organization. Giamatti gets his soul removed (it looks like a chickpea), but this only makes him worse at playing Uncle Vanya (Giamatti’s “soulless” acting bears an uncanny resemblance to the work of William Shatner), as well as alienates him from his wife (Emily Watson, severely underused).
Giamatti (the actor) portrays all of this with just the right balance of silliness and solemnity; it’s obvious that Giamatti (the character) takes his soul’s status very seriously, but the whole process is so ridiculous that it can’t help but elicit laughter. Things take a turn, though, when Giamatti decides to “rent” the soul of a Russian poet and starts experiencing her memories, then asks for his own soul back, only to discover that it’s been smuggled to Russia and sold on the black market.
At that point, when Giamatti and a Russian “soul mule” (Korzun) travel to St. Petersburg to retrieve his soul (which has been sold to a Russian actress), the movie becomes too ponderous and heavy, and its musings on the nature of existence are kind of thin. Like Being John Malkovich, it plays with people’s desires to inhabit the lives of celebrities, and like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it imagines a world where complicated emotional transactions can be handled by machines. Unlike either of those movies, though, it’s best when it’s just being goofy.