Clearly inspired by Spike Jonze’s fiercely imaginative fantasy drama Being John Malkovich but with all the fun sucked out of it, Cold Souls presents Paul Giamatti playing a version of himself as a neurotic Oscar-nominated mope experiencing a dearth of creativity and inspiration.
After reading a story in the New Yorker about the services of a high-tech company that reduces the day-to-day stress of its clients by extracting their souls, Giamatti decides to regenerate his creative juices by putting his soul into storage – as you do – and is shocked to discover that it looks a lot like a chic pea. Feeling weird and empty sans soul (big surprise) he decides to take someone else’s for a test drive and then (big surprise #2) decides he wants his own one back. However, it’s been stolen by a Russian soul mule and Giamatti spends the last act walking around in a weary haze, trying to get it back, the oddly subdued pace of his search enhanced only by the somehow alluring image of an ushanka resting on his noggin.
It’s a very WTF? premise – bold, weird and potentially laden with existential quirks (ala Being John Malkovich and I Heart Huckabees) but the story is told in an unusually downbeat style and the concept handled with matter-of-fact dreariness by first writer/director Sophie Barthes. It’s as if Barthes, armed with a quirky pitch, then went out of her way to avoid any exploration of the most interesting questions the concept raises: i.e. what would life be like without a soul? What would it be like with somebody else’s?
Bizarrely, Giamatti performs in the same one-note key throughout. His character remains the same with a soul, without a soul, and, most outrageously, with the borrowed soul of a Russian poet. His motivations are ludicrously under-developed; aside from underlining Giamatti’s trademark shtick as a baggy-eyed killjoy devoid of inspiration the screenplay offers no insight into what drives him to such extreme measures, instead hoping the audience will blindly follow the soul-extracting premise good naturedly even though it leads to nowhere.
A vapid and slowly paced when-will-this-end pseudo intellectual comedy/drama played straight and solemnly, Cold Souls is (especially in lieu of its wacky subject matter) bafflingly bereft of ideas. It is also bereft of warmth, heart and imagination; Barthes seems to be reiterating the point – lord knows why – that the film itself is cold and soulless. If her intention was to illustrate that being John Malkovich would be almost certainly be a lot more fun than being Paul Giamatti, then Cold Souls ought to be considered, at least on this level, a resolute success.
Cold Souls’ Australian theatrical release date: November 26, 2009.