Soul Kaufman

Cold Souls, written and directed by Sophie Barthes, starring Paul Giamatti, Emily Watson (Claire), Dina Korzun (Nina), Katheryn Winnick (Sveta) and David Straithairn (Dr. Flintstein) (2009): Some reviewers gave this movie flack for being too much like a Charlie Kaufman film. I don’t really see it. Kaufman’s films (Being John Malcovich, Adaptation) tend to trade in multiple, meta-forms of reality, and to have a hard core of absurdity. About the only similarity here is that Paul Giamatti plays Paul Giamatti, just as John Malcovich played John Malcovich (or, somewhat similarly, Nicolas Cage played Charlie Kaufman in a Charlie Kaufman film…and his fictional twin brother).

Other than that, this movie is far more straightforward than a Kaufman film — indeed, it actually works as science fiction in the Dickian comic inferno mode. I could see it appearing as a short story in a 1950’s science-fiction magazine like Galaxy. That’s a compliment.

Giamatti, playing Giamatti, is in rehearsals to play Uncle Vanya (in Chekov’s Uncle Vanya) on Broadway. He feels that something’s getting in the way of his performance — his anxiety, if you will. An article in the New Yorker tells him about a new process which allows one to remove the soul from a person’s brain and put it into cold storage. Intrigued, Giamatti visits Dr. Flintstein’s office and ultimately gets his soul removed.

Giamatti’s soul looks like a chickpea. Apparently, souls look like a lot of different things.

Into cold storage it goes, and off Giamatti goes to stink out the joint in his next few rehearsals. Back he goes to Dr. Flintstein, who rents him another soul — that of a Russian poet — for two weeks. Success! But when Giamatti goes to have his original soul put back in, it’s gone.

Uh oh.

Cold Souls maintains a nice, and offbeat, mix of comedy, satire and drama throughout. The subtextual commentary (there are Russian black marketeers in souls, just as there are Russian black marketeers in human trafficking) is kept fairly basic; the parallels aren’t forced. The science of the whole procedure almost seems to make sense, just as some of Philip K. Dick’s odder pieces of technology had a strange sort of sense to them.

Giamatti is solid as usual, as are Straitharn as Dr. Flintstein and Dina Korzun as Nina, a sympathetic Russian ‘soul mule’ who brings black-market souls from Russia to the U.S. inside her own head. Sophie Barthes does a terrific job here as both writer and director, and I’ll be interested to see if she continues in this offbeat, science fictional mode for later films. Recommended.

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