Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Cold Souls

I give credit to my wife, Sally, who finds unusual films on Netflix. Cold Souls, released in 2009, is a movie that totally slipped by us on its initial release. We watched it a few days ago.

What's your soul worth? Is it bogging you down, causing you anxiety? Put it in storage with a company specializing in such an enterprise, and see what good it will do. That's what Paul Giamatti, playing himself, having angst during rehearsals for the Chekhov play, Uncle Vanya, does after seeing an article in The New Yorker. He finds himself relieved when his soul is extracted, but soon finds the need of a soul, and rents the soul of a Russian poet.

This gets into the other side of the plot, which has to do with Russians trafficking in the illicit soul trade. A Russian woman transports the souls between Russia and the U.S., and steals Giamatti's soul to put into the body of a rich Russian's wife, who wants to be an actress. She's looking for an A-list American actor: Sean Penn, Johnny Depp, Al Pacino, or Robert DeNiro. The trophy wife gets Giamatti's soul, but thinks it's Pacino's. The expressions on Giamatti's face when he hears the list of actors she really wanted says a lot about the pecking order of Hollywood's heavyweight movie stars.

So Giamatti and the Russian go to Russia to steal back Giamatti's soul. Those wintery scenes, filmed on location in Russia, show that country not all that far removed from its Soviet dreariness.

The movie is advertised as a comedy, which it really isn't. Writer-Director Sophie Barthes said she got the idea for the story from a dream she had about Woody Allen's soul looking like a chickpea, which is what Giamatti sees when he sees his soul. The whole movie has the feeling of a dream. The dream vibe comes from the acceptance that yes, souls can be physically extracted and stored. Is that funny? The humor grows from the oddness of the situations, and from Giamatti, who is actually funnier when he's being more serious.

David Straithairn, as Dr. Flintstein, the director of the soul extraction company, should be familiar to most viewers as a fine character actor. But he also plays lead roles. His most famous was Edward R. Murrow in 2005's Good Night and Good Luck. Emily Watson, as Giamatti's wife, is also instantly recognizable. Michael Tucker, the Uncle Vanya director, was a regular on L.A. Law for years. Lauren Ambrose, who played Claire Fisher, a major role in HBO's Six Feet Under, is barely seen in Cold Souls as a nurse-receptionist. It seems a waste of talent, but actors do pop up in cameos in independent films for various reasons.

I recommend Cold Souls with reservations, that the viewer not look at it as being the "real" Paul Giamatti, but Paul Giamatti playing a character with his name and job (much like the movie Being John Malkovich).

Cold Souls gets a 6.5/10 on the Internet Movie Database. Some folks may find it puzzling. I rated it higher, an 8.5, because I found it a fascinating story told well, with a good cast. The poster, making it seem like a comedy, is misleading. The movie may have also put off viewers who find the Russian part of the story takes a while to unfold, and is complicated by characters speaking Russian without subtitles. Plotwise, all is revealed in time. I recommend Cold Souls to my friends who like something offbeat.

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