It’s hard to be human sometimes; souls can be such trying things. Soul-searching, soul-baring — we expend an awful lot of our energies on something we can’t even see.
So a man would be intrigued by a New Yorker article headlined “Unburdening Made Easy: Are New Yorkers tired of carrying their souls?” But while we’re familiar with the experience, difficult as it is, of being so encumbered, we have no idea what soullessness would be like. As Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn), whose lab is the subject of that New Yorker profile, says when asked what the side effects of soul removal might be, “We don’t know — the soul is a mystery.”
The dark, metaphysical comedy “Cold Souls” is an exceedingly entertaining attempt to answer the question. Sophie Barthes’ feature debut could be described as Charlie Kaufman meets Woody Allen by way of Russian and Czech literature, but it also marks the arrival of a singular new talent.
Paul Giamatti, playing himself, is the patient, who has arrived at the clinic after a torturous time rehearsing the title role in a production of “Uncle Vanya.” He certainly feels more free after putting his soul in storage — but he can no longer make love to his wife (Emily Watson) and is hilariously awful in “Vanya.” When he returns for his soul, he finds it’s gone missing. After borrowing another temporarily — that of a Russian poet, which certainly helps his “Vanya” performance — he discovers there’s a whole black market in Russia for these things. His is being used by a St. Petersburg gangster’s moll, who’s under the mistaken impression it belongs to a rather more famous actor.
Mr. Giamatti, in a humble and winning performance, carries this witty film, with the help of a talented supporting cast — in particular, Dina Korzun, who plays a Russian soul mule with tough grace.
“Cold Souls” is a cerebral comedy but one that subtly manages to touch the heart as well as the brain.
TITLE: “Cold Souls”
RATING: PG-13 (nudity and brief strong language)
CREDITS: Written and directed by Sophie Barthes
RUNNING TIME: 101 minutes
WEB SITE: coldsoulsthemovie.com
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS