In Cold Souls' hypothetical world of "soul storage," each soul extraction leaves a few tiny fragments remaining in the human body -- slightly less than five percent of one's overall soul. If someone were to continually extract and implant souls into his body (as would a "soul mule" who trafficked souls to and from Russia), the fragments would accumulate until, finally, a full-fledged soul would no longer have a space to occupy. The fragments that comprise Cold Souls -- a heady metaphysical premise, chilly futurist art direction, Paul Giamatti -- suggest a film that I couldn't help but love. But, at its core, the movie is oddly dissatisfying and ultimately hollow. Its fragments may all be in place, but the surgery required to sew them together is unsuccessful.
Playing a fictionalized version of himself that probably exists more in the minds of filmgoers than in reality, Giamatti is both artistically bankrupt and spiritually lost as he rehearses a New York stage production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. He appears to have found his self-help panacea when he encounters an advertisement for "soul storage." Soon enough, he's on a sky tram headed for Roosevelt Island, where David Straitharn assures him that the removal of his soul (which resembles a mere chickpea) will put an end to his existential crisis. After a successful extraction, a bizarre twist of fate leaves his soul in the hands of a Russian soul mule, and that transaction leads Giamatti into the secret world of underground soul trafficking.
Sounds pretty far out, no? Unfortunately, filmmaker Sophie Barthes' direction isn't as inspired as this type of movie requires. Although the premise suggests the kind of trip that lends itself well to Surrealist cinema, once the plot is set up, Barthes shows a lack of imagination that quickly turns the affair from humorous to ponderous. The first act is seductive and funny, but the trafficking subplot is poorly developed and the resolution unsatisfying. Even Giamatti seems a tad too obvious for his role. I wonder how much more effective Cold Souls would have been had a less obviously neurotic actor played the lead...say, for example, John Malkovich?
And therein lies the other problem with Cold Souls -- the feeling of deja vu that hangs over every frame, the simple fact that this film has already, essentially, been made in Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich. Cold Souls is extremely similar to Malkovich in both construct and theme, but Malkovich happens to also feature chimpanzee flashbacks, half-floor offices, shootouts set in the subconscious, and Cameron Diaz demanding that no one stand in the way of her actualization as a man. By contrast, Cold Souls mostly features Paul Giamatti walking around looking sad, which could also pretty much describe his role in every movie he's ever been in.
Barthes' idiosyncratic premise could have yielded a fascinating film. But the massive and similar Surrealist successes of the Kaufman universe (see also Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) only make Cold Souls look more feeble by comparison. There's a big difference between a good movie and a good idea for a movie. Sadly, Cold Souls is only the latter.