Now that science has made sure we all know – well and truly – that we’re going to die, the idea of the soul becomes all the more important. We can’t just be flesh and bone and nothing else, right? Right?
Well, that’s not the prime concern of Cold Souls’ lead character Paul Giamatti, played by – you guessed it – Paul Giamatti. Just like the real world’s Giamatti, this character is a famous American actor of stage and screen.
All is not well, though, as is the norm for any actor playing an actor in a film. Giamatti is starring in a worthy stage play of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, but can’t hook into the character. Obviously, the choice of Chekhov’s tale of disappointment and underachievement is no random selection.
Although Cold Souls doesn’t labour the point by making the character Giamatti spout out a five-minute mid-life crisis diatribe, it’s clear something along those lines is going on under the successful actor’s skin.
After seeing a feature in New Yorker magazine about a company that stores your soul so you don’t have to be held down by the burden of it any more, Giamatti decides that this sounds like a good idea and heads on down to their offices. If you’re feeling slight reverberations of 1999’s Being John Malkovich, we’re right there with you.
A comedy scattered with smatterings of charcoal blackness, Cold Souls wants to be met with a wry smile and an educated, knowing laugh rather than anything too full-bellied. There’s another side to the film, too, though. A subplot relating to a soul mule – yep, a pretty, if ever-so-slightly ageing Russian woman who smuggles souls across the border – who manages to put Giamatti’s stored soul in jeopardy, tries to add some tension into the mix, too.
Unfortunately, Cold Souls doesn’t quite manage to pull off its tripartite approach to the narrative – comedy, tension and, guffaw, soul – even if Giamatti is as eminently watchable as ever.
The issue here is that no central part of Cold Souls feels quite developed enough. In spite of a few laugh-inducing moments, this quirky comedy just isn’t quite funny enough. Yet, thanks to the sense of the levity, the film always keeps at hand – perhaps to give what comedy there is some space – the tension never really takes hold, either. Even the narrative climaxes feel like they’re going to be diffused at any moment, most likely by a repetition of a joke established half an hour ago.
The diffusing of tension with comedy can be fantastic, but when you can feel it coming from half a scene away, it feels like half the air’s already been let out of the balloon as it is burst, resulting in a comic parp rather than a bang. It’s a pity that when there’s a real sense of style to some elements of Cold Souls, its narrative chops aren’t quite up to muster.
Unfortunately, the sense that Cold Souls is stuck cinematically in a middle ground that doesn’t do justice to its interesting premise continues into the execution of the premise itself. That Giamatti seems essentially the same person, albeit a tad more anxious, when he’s injected with the soul of a Russian woman living in poverty, you can’t help but feel a little disappointed.
The same is true whenever a character adopts another’s soul in the film, and yet, if anything, the film’s overall tone boils down to the standard ‘there’s no place like home’, or ‘there’s no soul like mine’ sensibility rather than anything particularly existential or meaningful.
Jim Carrey-style gurning is certainly not required, but there’s no madness, no real sense of spirituality and no real sense of any particularly involving characterisation, aside from that which is supplied by Giamatti’s – the real one, not the character – presence and all-round powerful acting licks.
The rest of Cold Souls is all a bit too vague to leave all that much of an impression on you. Just plain funny would have been enough, but Cold Souls has aspirations beyond chuckles.
Still, the unusual premise and the Giamatti factor do make Cold Souls worth a watch. However, it doesn’t fulfill the initial promise set up by its intriguing concept and strong cast.