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Cold Souls

A soul searching comedy.

Sophie Barthes’s clever metaphysical comedy Cold Souls has been dubbed ‘Being Paul Giamatti’ more than once since its Sundance 2009 debut. But if comparisons to the films of Charlie Kaufman are inevitable, the similarities only go so far. Cold Souls exists on a different, surrealist plane: more lyricism, less misanthropy. When we first see Paul, he’s performing a monologue from Anton Chekhov’s ‘Uncle Vanya’ as the title character. Full of chest-throbbing anguish, Giamatti can’t pin down the performance. His director (Michael Tucker) tells him he’s taking the role too seriously; his agent recommends he check out a recent article in The New Yorker. Headlined ‘Unburdening Made Easy’, the story suggests a way out of Giamatti’s unbearable weightness of being: a new procedure that can remove one’s soul. Here, the film’s wry goofiness kicks into high gear. Giamatti finds himself in the Soul Storage offices of David Strathairn’s Dr. Flintstein (‘A twisted soul is like a tumour, better to remove it!’) and ends up in the spherical ‘soul extractor,’ a cross between an MRI machine and something out of Woody Allen’s Sleeper. After the actor is handed a plastic cylinder with his inner self, he’s distraught to discover it’s much smaller than he expected. (‘My soul is a chickpea!’ he laments in a joke that keeps on giving.) Giamatti’s ensuing adventure is mostly absurdist fun. First, there’s the initial liberation of soullessness (‘My feet, my feet,’ Giamatti says, wiggling his appendages as if discovering them for the first time), followed by its hollowed-out horror (‘I can’t feel a thing!’), and then, the quest to retrieve his soul, which takes him to the far reaches of St. Petersburg, where he must confront the vacuous lives of corrupt Russian entrepreneurs. If the screenplay is full of offbeat wit, the actor embraces the scenario as wholeheartedly as if it were Chekhov’s. Giamatti works the comedy like a pro, from deadpan to slapstick, but he also delivers pathos and his commitment to the character is never sacrificed. When the film reaches for spiritual depth, it’s only in Giamatti’s wet, beady eyes that the moments resonate. It’s impossible to picture Cold Souls with any other actor. – Anthony Kaufman, Village Voice

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Directed by: 
Sophie Barthes
Running Time: 
Paul Giamatti, David Strathairn, Dina Korzun, Emily Watson, Lauren Ambrose
Screenplay by: 
Sophie Barthes

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