Sophie Barthes's clever metaphysical comedy Cold Souls has been dubbed "Being Paul Giamatti" more than once since its Sundance 2009 debut. But if comparisons to the films of Charlie Kaufman are inevitable, the similarities only go so far. Sure, Paul Giamatti plays "Paul Giamatti," another "real" actor unwittingly embroiled in a mind/body conundrum, and there's a semi-futuristic doctor's office that could sit next door to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Minds Lacuna, Inc. But Cold Souls exists on a different, surrealist plane: more lyricism, less misanthropy. When we first see Paul, he's performing a monologue from Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. Full of chest throbbing anguish, Giamatti can't pin down the performance. His director tells him he's taking the role too seriously; his agent recommends he check out a recent article headlined "Unburdening Made Easy," which suggests a way out of Giamatti's unbearable weightiness of being: a procedure that can remove one's soul. Soon Giamatti finds himself in the Soul Storage offices of David Straitharn's Dr. Finkelstein, and ends up in the spherical "soul extractor. Giamatti's ensuing adventure is mostly absurdist fun. First, there's the initial liberation of soullessness, followed by its hollowed-out horror, and then the quest to retrieve his soul. Giamatti doesnt give into caricature, but is his dedication enough to make Cold Souls more than just a sophisticated romp? Only in the film's last ambiguous, evocative image does Barthes finally transcend the material and arrive at something beautiful and ineffable.
Aug. 14-20, 2009