Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Cold Souls (2009) - Better Than Originally Thawed

On the Menu: COLD SOULS (2009)
Ingredients: Paul Giamatti, David Straithairn, Emily Watson, Dina Korzun and Lauren Ambrose. Directed by Sophie Barthes. Run time: 101 minutes. Rated: PG-13.

At First Bite: Like THE INVENTION OF LYING, I first heard about this film on "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien." That was last summer, maybe the end of July, so I've been waiting a while to watch this. Paul Giamatti plays an actor named Paul Giamatti (perhaps a more stressed-out version of himself). He's currently working on the Chekhov play Uncle Vanya, but has poured his soul into the part so much that he's become Vanya -- empty, depressed and "stuck." His agent tells him about a story in The New Yorker that explains the new trend of soul extraction, the brainchild of Dr. Flintstein (Straithairn). The doctor explains that life becomes more functional and purposeful once you get rid of your burdening soul. That might be so, but despite feeling "great," Paul's acting skills (he's now way too cheerful as Vanya) and sex life suffer. He makes a return trip to remedy the situation, and ends up with a rental soul. While all this is going on we're introduced to Nina (Korzun), who trafficks souls to and from Russia. We don't really understand the implications of Nina's work until later in the film, and I think she's the more compelling character because of those implications. Her boss's wife wants Al Pacino's soul, so on her next business trip to Dr. Flintstein she "borrows" the only actor's soul in storage. Feeling his rental is too much for him, Paul goes back to trade it for his own. Uh oh.

Second Helping: I normally don't watch a movie a second time unless I really enjoy it and there's a commentary track on the DVD. However, this is an intelligent and beautifully shot movie, and I felt I needed a second chance to really appreciate it. Watching it again, you understand Nina's expressions and struggles at the beginning of the film, and Paul's hotel visit makes more sense. During the first viewing, I immediately found comparisons with ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND and SLEEPER. But, Barthes's vision is more melancholic than neurotic. The movie compares the soul to a muscle, in that it can shrink or grow depending on how you take care of it.

Tough to Swallow: "What happens to the soul when the donor dies?" It's a question posed, but never fully answered. And, the residues quota; how much is too much? As a fan of Six Feet Under and CAN'T HARDLY WAIT, I was disappointed that Lauren Ambrose didn't have more to do.

Something to Chew On: This is Sophia Barthes's first feature film (that's four blogs in a row involving first-time directors). The idea for the movie came to her in a dream. In the dream, she and Allen are in an office with boxes containing their souls, and Allen becomes enraged at the shape and size of his soul. She had been watching Woody Allen movies and reading Carl Jung's "Man in Search of a Soul," and thinks the two connected in her subconscious.

Giamatti's work prior to this film was the HBO miniseries John Adams, and, apparently, he told Barthes he indentified with the character in her film because he felt the role of Adams had drained him.

Barthes has grown tired of the comparisons of COLD SOULS to the films of Charlie Kaufman. She says her inspirations are Allen, Federico Fellini, Luis Buñuel, and Jean-Luc Godard among others. She wrote the film in 2005 while living in New York. She says the war and government made her feel as though her soul was shrinking, and made her question why she was living in the U.S. where reality was so gloomy. The story was her attempt at escapism.

The film currently has a 6.8 user rating on IMDb.com (1,588 votes).

Sides: The DVD has seven deleted scenes. The best, by far, is the one with Paul trying to hammer out his Vanya. There is also a 3-minute featurette about the design of the Soul Extractor 5000. Designers Eric Lahey and Calen Kennett talk about their inspirations and what it took to put the "machine" together.

Aftertaste: Here you have a smart, funny, absurd and depressing science-fiction film set in an alternate reality. Everyone is comparing it to BEING JOHN MALKOVICH or ETERNAL SUNSHINE, but I feel that is a disservice to all the thought and passion Sophie Barthes put into this movie. Yes, Paul Giamatti plays a character right out of a Woody Allen flick, but its how he emotes that brings his character to life (or to soullessness). It's all in his facial expressions. He looks as though he really has been drained of his soul for most of the movie. The same can be said of Dina Korzun. I was very impressed with her. I'm not a big fan of Emily Watson, so I was okay with her role as Paul's wife not being very substantial.

The comedy is deadpan for the most part. The funniest scenes involve Paul's visits with Dr. Flintstein (the joke about avoiding sales tax made me laugh both times I watched). David Straithairn was surprisingly funny. I love that the office has marshmallows as a snack. But, even though it's funny, the mood changes once the story shifts to Russia, and that's what makes the film for me. COLD SOULS has dry wit and is chilled to near-perfection.


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