CAPSULE: COLD SOULS is a bizarre fantasy that gives us a world where souls can be removed and transplanted like kidneys. What seems at first like a blessing causes some unforeseen and fantastic problems. The first half of COLD SOULS is inventive, but the film really loses steam in the second half. Too many technical problems went unsolved in bringing this story to the screen. Sophie Barthes writes and directs. Rating: low +1 (-4 to +4) or 5/10
Warning: This review has minor spoilers
Actor Paul Giamatti (played by actor Paul Giamatti) is getting a mid-life crisis. Shortcomings in his acting are really preying on his mind. It looks like he will be fired from performing in his upcoming production of Chekov's "Uncle Vanya". He is no longer relating to his wife (Emily Watson). Dark moments in his past plague him. Then he hears about Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn), a doctor who can remove his soul or even can transplant other people's souls into patients. First reports are that people who have had their souls removed feel very good and function better. A special option even allows patients to have their souls removed and put in cold storage to be reattached later. There is some intrigue in a Robert Sheckley sort of style when Giamatti's soul is stolen from him. But it is not fully exploited.
COLD SOULS even has an interesting theme in black market stolen souls, not unlike the one that exists with organs. This actually could have been a satiric crime thriller, but Barthes's script keeps the thriller elements to a minimum. Instead the story is more about Giamatti's introspection. He goes looking for his soul, but somehow without much energy.
The problem is that cinema is just exactly the wrong medium for this particular story. When Giamatti sits and meditates with his own soul, when he meditates with no soul, and when he meditates with another person's soul, he looks just about the same. In a story we could look into his mind and see how the soul change is affecting him. But in a film we are stopped dead at his face and can go no deeper.
The story does not really grind to a halt, because there is just not that much grinding needed. The story has already slowed on its own. We know different things may be going on in Giamatti's head, but the camera does not pick them up. Giamatti may be a good actor, but projecting different souls is apparently beyond his acting ability. And when someone else has Giamatti's soul there is nothing remotely in her behavior that suggests anything of Giamatti. The soul might as well be a piece of jewelry for as much as it affects its wearer.
This seemed like it could have been a fantasy a lot like THE ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. Certainly the setup with the peculiar doctor and his strange medical equipment telling Giamatti all about the process seems much the same. But ETERNAL SUNSHINE's operation removed memories, something that the viewer knows about. We have some idea what it would be like if some memories were taken away. But there is no common agreement on what a soul is, what is its function, and what would it be like if it were taken away. And Giamatti's performance does nothing to suggest an answer to the question. Nobody has much experience with what it would be like to no longer have a soul. We learn from Giamatti's performance that without it he goes from puzzlement to depression. This is not the stuff of good cinema. There is just too much that is too interesting about this situation, but which gets side-stepped in the script of COLD SOULS.
Fantasy films like BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and THE ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND start with a bizarre premise and then really expand on the concepts and think about the implications. This film just starts with the bizarre premise and expects that impetus and Giamatti's acting to carry the film. Neither helps this film much. I rate COLD SOULS low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 5/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt1127877/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/cold_souls/
Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 2009 Mark R. Leeper