Sunday, March 14, 2010

Bonus DVD review: "Cold Souls"

"Cold Souls" is a strange little movie that is trying too hard to be the next "Being John Malkovich."

It's got the same kooky plot filled with metaphysical musings about consciousness being transportable from one body to another, and having that transaction monetized by some enterprising individuals.

There's also the play on reality, with a real-life actor -- in this case, the great Paul Giamatti -- portraying a fictionalized version of himself.

The same black, dry sense of humor is there, too -- although not in great quantity. That's the film's main problem, as director/writer Sophie Barthes often forgets that she's making a comedy. Scenes start out with a humorous verve, but spin off into long stretches of tragedy before the film remembers itself.

The tone is, in fact, very much like Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya," which the play Giamatti is rehearsing as the story opens. He can't seem to nail the play's very Russian blend of humor and despair, which causes him to go into his own depression.

Seeing an article in the New Yorker about upper-crust people have their souls extracted brings him to the office of Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn), a fussy scientist who heads up the operation. The doctor freely admits they don't fully understand the technology or long-term implications of extracting souls, other than it's guaranteed to make dark thoughts go away.

It won't make him happy, Giamatti figures, but at least it will keep him from suffering.

The nature of the soul and its physical appearance don't have any correlation, Dr. Flintstein insists, demonstrating some clear receptacles where a lot of drab, indistinct shapes reside. Still, Giamatti is upset when he undergoes the procedure and learns his soul looks like a chickpea.

"I don't even have a sexy soul. It's all dark and twisted. It's got a ridiculous shape," he complains.

Being soulless (well, mostly ... about 5 percent remains, Flintstein says) doesn't really help Giamatti's acting, and his relationship with his wife (played by Emily Watson) deteriorates. In a panic, he agrees to rent the soul of a Russian poet, at least until the play is over.

This brings us to the other end of the soul business, which is similar to drug trafficking, with a dank Russian warehouse as its epicenter. A mobster pays workers to suck out their souls to sell to the West. But then he gets the idea of selling American souls in Russia. His wife, a soap opera star, makes a list of famous actors whose soul she thinks would help her lack of talent -- Johnny Depp, Robert De Niro, etc.

Nina (Dina Korzun), the Russian mule who transports the souls overseas inside herself, steals Giamatti's soul from the storage site and passes it off as Al Pacino's. Giamatti decides he wants his own soul back, which leads to some international intrigue.

The movie is clever without ever finding anything interesting to say about the notion of souls being extracted and bartered on the international market like kidneys. Its tone exists entirely on the plot level, treating the events for what they are rather than what they imply.

Giamatti is a delight, as always, playing a kvetching, complaining portrait of his own persona. It must be an interesting and terrifying prospect for a character actor to expose himself on screen like this, even if it is a made-up person who happens to have his name and disposition.

While an interesting premise, "Cold Souls" left me pretty cold as a viewer.

DVD extras are pretty scarce. There's a 3-minute featurette about the construction of the "soul extractor" prop, and seven deleted scenes.

The first, of Giamatti displaying some (intentionally) awful acting during a rehearsal of his play, is so hilarious its excision from the film is mystifying. The other six, though, are of limited value.

Movie: 2 stars
Extras: 1.5 stars

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