“Is your soul weighing you down?” asks an advertisement in the pages of a Yellow Book in “Cold Souls.” For actor Paul Giamatti (TV’s “John Adams”), who plays a fictional version of himself, the answer is yes.
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Starring in a production of Chekov’s play “Uncle Vanya,” Giamatti feels that he can no longer separate himself from the intensely melancholic character he is playing, which he thinks is causing him physical and emotional strife. His solution, of course, is to undergo the newly popular procedure to “desoul” the body — literally extracting one’s soul out and placing it into a glass jar. Soon enough, Giamatti wants his soul back, only to realize that it has been stolen by a member of an elaborate Russian “soul-trafficking” operation.
“Cold Souls” is quite clear in its ambitious aspirations to capture the same brilliant blend of metaphysics and humor that defined “Being John Malkovich.” The film has some genuinely funny moments — the subtle digs at the embodiment of Giamatti’s soul, which looks exactly like a chickpea, as well as the repeated cracks at his celebrity status. The man is one of the best actors in the business, but the film mocks the sad truth that he will never reach the “A-list” level of Al Pacino and Johnny Depp.
Even so, “Cold Souls” tries too hard to be comical, with jokes producing little more than a slight chuckle more often than not. There are too many lazy jabs at overdone topics — the incredible suckage of New Jersey, for one. The film is also incapable of reigning in Giamatti’s signature outbursts of incredulity. With furrowed brow, wide-eyed glare and wild gesticulation, he exasperatedly laments over various unfortunate situations. While humorous at first, each iteration of this performance is increasingly grating.
The patently kooky plot, which sounds like Z-grade science fiction drivel, is addressed within the film itself. In one of the film’s best moments, Giamatti explains his soul-removal situation to his wife (Emily Watson, “Synecdoche, New York”). By retelling the plot developments through Giamatti, the film indicates that it recognizes the absurdity of the narrative and asks the audience to accept the bizarreness with mirth — especially the part involving the illegal trade of souls across international lines.
The film does dabble with some profound questions about the essence of life and happiness. After Giamatti’s soul is removed, all of his stress and internal discord disappear — but he also becomes emotionally distant from his wife and decays into a terrible actor. Is the occasional misery a necessary part of achieving joy? Such presumptions are raised, but they are eventually suffocated by layers of philosophy and dense visuals.
The production design of “Cold Souls” is gorgeous, with the bleak, grey mechanisms of the “desouling” corporation and the frosty, monotonous tundra of Russia reflecting the disembodiment of our hero. Unfortunately, the film takes this “cold” theme too far, as it encroaches upon the mood of the viewer, who is likely to leave the theater chilly and emotionally detached. Just like this fictional version of Paul Giamatti, the film is good but inaccessible, and intriguing but unrelatable.