Cold Souls is an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind filtered through a Russian worldview. It's comical, yes, but glum and brooding, too, a wintry waltz through acting, underground commerce and metaphysics.
Paul Giamatti plays himself, an actor wrestling with the lead in a stage production of Chekov's Uncle Vanya -- wrestling and losing. His panic shows on the stage ( Michael Tucker plays the director) and at home ( Emily Watson plays his wife). His emotional baggage is holding him back.
"I can no longer separate myself from the character," he mutters. "I'm stuck."
Then his agent suggests he check out this new business -- Soul Storage. For a fee, Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn) will suck out your soul, stuff it in a canister (it can look like a prune, a jelly bean or, in Paul's case, "chickpea") and store it.
"When you get rid of the soul, everything makes so much more sense," the doctor says.So Giamatti, after a few minutes of defensive psychobabble, buys into it. And then he learns he can "rent" another soul. Maybe a Russian poet's soul would make him a great Uncle Vanya. It does.
Meanwhile, a "mule" (Dina Korzun) is making a living smuggling Russian souls in and out of the U.S., one at a time. Her boss wants a great American actor's soul for his gorgeous but vapid soap-opera actress-wife (Katheryn Winnick).
And, well, you can guess the rest.
Giamatti is well cast as an actor utterly committed to his art, willing to try this trendy new thing, quick to lose his temper over what that might say about him and determined to recover that essential part of himself he has given to others for safekeeping. He's very good at conveying how "Paul" grows even more hangdog after he rents a Russian soul.
The wintry scenes of St. Petersburg, where the Russian half of the story takes place, have a brutal, post-Soviet industrial beauty to them.
If there's a shortcoming in this Sophie Barthes film, it is whimsy. The filmmaker allows the Russian gravitas of it all to suck some of the fun out of what could be a thoughtful and yet inherently wacky enterprise. Scenes in which the Russians try to figure out if Giamatti is an apt acting substitute for " Al Pacino," whose soul the soap actress really wanted, are amusingly self-deprecating for Giamatti to play.
In any event, this is a smart, dark comedy of the Russian psyche and one American's efforts to tap into it, even if it means losing the chickpea he's had as his moral compass since birth. Cold Souls Four of five starsCast: Paul Giamatti, Dina Korzun, David Strathairn, Emily WatsonDirector: Sophie BarthesRunning time: 1 hour 40 minutesIndustry rating: PG-13 for nudity and brief strong language.