The soul: Albatross or asset? It seems as if soulless people, unhindered by conscience, have a huge advantage in life. They calculate their options without sentiment and act decisively to advance their objectives. But could a person who is nagged by inner voices become like them? Should he?
That's the quandary facing Paul Giamatti (played by Paul Giamatti - who else?) in the futuristic seriocomedy "Cold Souls." Prickly, grumpy, prone to sulk over life's trivialities, Paul has a whole world of passions battling inside him. That's his gift as an actor, but it makes for an anxious daily life.
While rehearsing for a New York production of Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya," Paul feels overwhelmed by the character's melancholy. When he learns of a new high-tech procedure to remove souls, he decides to unburden himself. He visits the sleek, high-tech offices of Soul Storage where Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn) is all glib reassurance. "When you've gotten rid of the soul," the doctor purrs, "everything makes so much more sense."
Giamatti is crestfallen to discover that his immortal essence resembles a chickpea. Flintstein is concerned with more practical matters. He informs Paul that he can avoid sales tax by storing his soul in New Jersey.
In her feature debut, writer//director Sophie Barthes handles weighty issues with a light touch. Her through-the-looking-glass fantasy is silliness with a hint of transcendence. It turns the eternal spirit-body problem into a springboard for sly jokes and trippy philosophy. It's also a great platform for its star. Giamatti gets to play the role of a lifetime: Himself with the "Giamatti-ness" removed.
As promised, Paul feels lighter and less stressed without his existential baggage. But that is not the ideal mindset to play a glum Russian. He bounds through his next rehearsal of "Vanya" as if he were performing a dinner-theater sex farce. His eyes are blank despite his grins and scowls. He flails his arms and gooses his costar.
Things go poorly at home. Paul's wife (Emily Watson) can't relate to her newly soulless mate. Paul visits Dr. Flintstein to re-implant his soul, but the doctor warns, "you'll feel the unbearable weight again." So Paul leases one belonging to a Russian poet, which should be ideal, but isn't.
He asks for his own soul back, angst and all. There's been a little mixup. It's inside another client, the last person a vain, neurotic performer would want to have possession of his essence. With the aid of a mysterious beauty named Nina (Dina Korzun), Paul travels to Russia to recover the soul he thought he could live better without.
Peppered with ingenious twists of imagination, "Cold Souls" walks a tightrope between intellectual slapstick and edgy social commentary. Virtuoso cinematographer Andrij Parekh gives the film an elegant, uneasy Kubrickian look that complements the action to perfection.
This is a film to be savored as it evolves from idiosyncratic characters and oddball premises to situations that are universal. I wouldn't recommend it to someone looking for a nonstop hoot, but "Cold Souls" made me laugh hard and think harder. What more could you want?
STARRING: Paul Giamatti, David Strathairn, Emily Watson
RATED: PG-13 for nudity and brief strong language
RUNNING TIME: 1 hour, 39 minutes