Friday, August 28, 2009

Art House Salad: COLD SOULS

Dishing on the latest blend of alternative flicks being tossed around in limited release
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Dir. Sophie Barthes
Samuel Goldwyn Films
101 min. PG-13

When Prozac and Zoloft just won't cut it, the chemically imbalanced (or simply unsatisfied) folks in first-time feature filmmaker Sophie Barthes' surrealist comedy “Cold Souls” turn to a company that offers them the ultimate cure: soul extraction, which, as described by the company's president, makes “everything more functional and purposeful.” Paul Giamatti, who plays himself in the film, lands in an emotionally crippling creative slump while rehearsing his role in a production of Chekhov's “Uncle Vanya.” After reading about said company in The New Yorker, the tormented actor elects to undergo said procedure, which involves lying inside a sleek device that looks like an MRI machine manufactured by Apple. Once removed, Giamatti's soul – much to his dismay – is revealed to be a dead ringer for a chick pea, and is placed in cold storage until further notice. Relieved of irksome human burdens like melancholy, remorse and self-doubt, Giamatti feels “hollow” and “lighter,” even though his famously average outward appearance looks droopier than ever.

It doesn't take long for complications to ensue. His droopiness is soon coupled with loopiness, and – much to his wife's and director's dismay – he begins to lose control of his inner monologue, among other things. Once he has the soul of a Russian poet implanted (the feed works both ways, and the business has a shady international market), he does nail his stage performance, but his chick pea winds up in St. Petersburg, transferred into the body of a talentless soap star who's husband dictates the Russian soul trade.

Giamatti – who really let himself go for the role, his facial hair so overgrown it seems to curl over his teeth – has a ball with the waggish self-parody, and once again captures the frustations of a poor schlub who's as real as any guy you'd pass on the street. When Barthes follows him (which is through about 90 percent of the movie), her handheld camera is loose and shaky – in sync with his precarious state of being. Her somber, gray palette, accented with fuzzy wisps of light, is a good match for the film's deadpan humor, and strongly conveys the adrift tone of Giamatti's literal soul search (especially when that search takes him to the appropriately gloomy landscapes of Russia).

Of course, Barthes' script owes much of its inspiration to Charlie Kaufman, whose similar “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” were never far from my thoughts throughout “Cold Souls.” However, the cinema certainly has room for more quirky, existential explorers, and the ideas presented in this reasonably impressive debut suggest that Barthes is a talent to watch. Surprisingly, one of the areas in which her movie falls short is the development/treatment of the female characters. It's Giamatti's journey, yes, but the dynamite talents of Emily Watson are wasted in the thankless role of Giamatti's little-seen wife; and Dina Korzun, who's soul-trafficking Russian mule is without question the most interesting part of the story, is a little short-changed by a screenplay that doesn't care enough about her character.

The film isn't howlingly funny, but then, it doesn't mean to be. Its jokes are nicely understated, and the most unsubtle is a well-played sight gag of a salad covered in garbanzo beans. I enjoyed the tone, which is at once light and heavy. There's a fun yet tragic fascination to this odd little yarn. Still, I can't get past the feeling that it's a bit of trifle – a here today, gone tomorrow title. The company president, played with poker-faced precision by David Strathairn, says that he and his colleagues don't know if souls are immortal. I don't believe “Cold Souls” is, but here, today, I think of it fondly and recommend it especially to the chemically imbalanced.
3.5 stars (out of 5)

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