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Cold Souls

Cold Souls (2009)

August. 07,2009
| Fantasy Drama Comedy Science Fiction

Paul is agonising over his interpretation of 'Uncle Vanya' and, paralysed by anxiety, stumbles upon a solution via a New Yorker article about a high-tech company promising to alleviate suffering by extracting souls. He enlists their services—only to discover that his soul is the shape and size of a chickpea.


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One of the most powerful meta- movies ever made, this one has the great Giamatti playing to his strengths, i.e., playing himself. ;-). But this one is much more than that. It tackles the subject of desperation, existentialism(?), smuggling, power play and so forth, and moves seamlessly back-and-forth between these themes/aspects without missing a beat that we're never left overwhelmed by everything that's going on. Also, it helps that the whole surreal setting, and the feeling of being completely overwhelmed by the insurmountable odds surrounding our lead meta-character is dizzyingly Kafka-esque as well, and that only adds to the movie's strengths.I'm sure there will be comparisons drawn with 'Being John Malkovich', and not having seen that yet (yeah, I know), I cannot comment. However, there is a lot of sincerity that has been put into this effort, and along with that, the great performances, and the uniquely weird screenplay, somehow I cannot help feeling that this just might strike a chord with those that give it a chance. Performance-wise, while Emily Watson and David Strathairn are great in their roles, this is squarely, and justifiably, Paul Giamatti's movie. As he is wont to do so even in cases where he's slumming, he simply owns every frame he's in, and the meta-nature of the entire endeavor doesn't seem to bother him any, though this has to be perhaps the most exposed role he's ever done, and somehow I think it might never have been easy having to go through few of the motions his character, a.k.a, himself, has to go through, while remembering that this is just another role, and he has a life to get back to.I was lucky to watch this on the big screen during the 1st week of its limited release, and recommend it to one and all, since such works are rarities in themselves.


"Cold Souls" begins with possibly the best premise I have seen on film. It is fitting that screenwriter Sophie Barthes was nominated for Best First Screenplay from the Independent Spirit Awards. Paul Giamatti plays Paul Giamatti, an actor struggling with the weight of Checkov. Uncle Vanya is weighing down his soul. This is a problem afflicting most New Yorkers, but there is now a solution. A company can extract your soul and keep it in storage for you. Brilliant.The opening scenes offer some insightful humour and intelligent wit, and offers a fair number of laughs for everybody who immediately saw the comedy in the premise. David Strathairn and Giamatti have great interactions and are very funny, both together and on their own.The rest of movie, though, plays out like a dark mystery or thriller which doesn't really fit the wonderful comedic start. The main obstacle for our hero, and the thriller plot are significantly darker and melodramatic than I was expecting. Although it is titled "Cold Souls", I was hoping for less cold and more soul-fulfilling insightful humour.It is a dark comedy, so probably a must-see for fans of the genre. However, I think one of the problems with coming up with such an inventive idea, is viewers will likely form their own story line, so if it doesn't play out as you would have written it, it will seem disappointing and disjointed as it did for me. But that being said, the interest and intrigue behind this story would be too much to pass this up.


I had to watch this movie twice to fully understand and appreciate its beauty. I don't want to spoil the whole movie but here is how I watched this film: At first you are misguided (although not in a bad way) in thinking this movie is a comedy about Paul Giamatti and a Russian Mule... when in fact the whole movie revolves around "the Russian poet" (who we barely see). There is the tragedy...The moral of the story is quite simple: it deals with unjust and unfair manipulation and mistreatment of the souls (Black Market for the souls, poor people selling their souls for a little bit of money) The fact that this movie got labelled as a Comedy is just part of the irony... Don't get me wrong, there are a few quirky smiles (like when Giamatti loses his soul and becomes a lousy actor) but the whole tone of the film is in fact tragic... The pace is heavy yet subtle... The strokes, brushes, movements of the camera are amazing... If you are not touched by this film, then you are a Cold Soul and need to get yourself check.I was very impressed and highly recommend this...(Another thing I liked: this is not your average wanna-be indie anti-conformist anti-Hollywood film... This is just a really nice movie.)

Colin George

On the surface, "Cold Souls" feels like an unoriginal original. It's being marketed on its offbeat uniqueness, though clearly draws influence from the work of Charlie Kaufman. The trailer plays up a safe weirdness and deadpan comedy that risks alienating exactly no one, but fortunately, paints an incomplete picture of what "Cold Souls" actually is. Granted, the template is very "Being John Malkovich," (make that "Being Paul Giamatti") and thematically, the two films cover a lot of common ground. "Cold Souls," however, is unassuming and straight-forward, earnest and intelligent, and dedicated enough to its voice that it never feels like a work of plagiarism. The film is mellow and contained, where "Malkovich" is loopy, surreal, and expansive. We begin with a simple supposition: the human soul can, through a specialized procedure, be extracted from the human body. That's our big buy, and the focus of the film is on the implications of that premise on an intimate and an economic scale. Enter Paul Giamatti, who's struggling with his performance in an adaptation of Chekov's "Uncle Vanya." Giamatti's performance is layered and nuanced, and playing himself proves one of his most difficult and rewarding roles yet. The "Vanya" rehearsals and performances highlight the three different versions of himself he plays: Giamatti, Giamatti sans soul, and Giamatti endowed with the soul of a Russian poet (guess which one performs "Vanya" best). The better part of the film, however, is an exploration of the soul trafficking trade. Giamatti's soul is stolen by a Russian black market mule, and when soullessness and uncomfortable surrogate souls convince Paul to turn back to himself, he departs for St. Petersburg for some literal soul searching. The human soul as a physical commodity is the basis for the major thematic and philosophical underpinnings of the film, along with the implication of soul transplant, which interestingly leaves a residue that accumulates during transfers. These shards of identity linger, and in a particularly amusing scene, the soul mule finds herself at a Russian video store asking for any American movie starring Paul Giamatti ("Paul Giamatti?" repeats the clerk). The playful jabs at celebrity (Giamatti's soul is later confused for Al Pacino's), the sci- fi/ existentialist themes, and the terrific performance(s) by Mr. Giamatti grow to wholly transcend any uncouth comparisons to "Being John Malkovich," obvious as the inspiration is."Cold Souls" is actually more reserved and mature than most of Kaufman's films, substituting arbitrary oddity for worldly wherewithal. Perhaps director Sophie Barthes' biggest (though relatively lonely) flaw in writing and directing the film is not digging deep enough. "Cold Souls" is a small but surprisingly successful piece with an asterisk that despite a big idea, its ambition is kept in constant check, and it's disappointing she doesn't take the premise further. Then again, Kaufman's sort of staked himself out as the Cecil B DeMille of strange, and a quiet nod to his work may be the most authentic. "Cold Souls" is one of the better indies this year, and if it lacks in originality, it compensates in substance.