Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Giamatti as Giamatti: Cold Souls

It is all too easy to believe thousands of New Yorkers are walking around without souls. While some professions might regard the soul as an impediment to success (trial lawyers come to mind), for an actor like Paul Giamatti it is indispensable for evoking the emotions of their trade. So when the actor’s soul is misplaced, it jeopardizes his career and his marriage in Cold Souls (trailer here), Sophie Barthes’s post-modern fantasy opening this Friday in New York and Los

In the tradition of Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich, Paul Giamatti plays Paul Giamatti playing Uncle Vanya. Unfortunately, the tragic Chekhov protagonist is taking a debilitating emotional toll on the Academy Award winning actor. His agent suggests a dubious solution. The Soul Storage Company, a new tech start-up, can physically remove the soul and keep it in cold storage, liberating customers from all their anxiety.

Initially, the de-souling alleviates Giamatti’s depression, but it obviously leaves him soulless, in effect dead inside. Suddenly, he is no fun to live with and not much of an actor either. Yet when he returns to reclaim his soul, his safety deposit box is empty. It turns out soul trafficking is a burgeoning criminal enterprise. Now, after trying to avoid the Russian angst of Vanya, Giamatti finds himself in St. Petersburg, on the trail of the smugglers who stole his soul.

Clearly inspired by Charlie Kaufman’s Malkovich script and maybe a bit of Sleeper-era Woody Allen, Barthes’s premise is undeniably clever, but her pacing sometimes lags. Still, co-producer-cinematographer Andrij Parekh fashions a distinctive visual style for Cold, capitalizing on the stark, frozen Russian locations and sterile retro-ultra-modern sets.

One would certainly expect Giamatti to be convincing playing a fanciful version of himself, but his shrewdly understated performance is surprisingly memorable. He effectively anchors the film, giving soul, if you will, to Barthes’s frosty tale. Among the supporting cast, David Strathairn brings a nice comedic flair to the soul-extracting Dr. Flintstein. However, Emily Watson seems trapped in the underwritten role of Giamatti’s wife Claire and the several soulless characters are by necessity cold and unsympathetic.

If nothing else, the idea of Giamatti playing Vanya sounds like a hot ticket Broadway producers should explore. His intriguing screen work brings a redemptive humanity to Barthes’s coolly stylized vision. It opens this Friday (8/7) at the Sunshine and Lincoln Plaza Theaters.