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"Cold Souls" is hot stuff. It centers on a New York actor named Paul Giamatti and played by Paul Giamatti. While experiencing spiritual fatigue during rehearsals for Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya," Giamatti Squared takes advantage of the latest existential service written up in the New Yorker magazine. He has his soul extracted and puts it into storage.

This film isn't really about a soul on ice. Because the movie's "Paul Giamatti" derives from the screen persona of, yes, Paul Giamatti - that huddle of broiling instincts, out-of-control impulses and aggravated ardor epitomized in "Sideways" - you feel his soul's absence as dearly as its presence. The scenes in which Giamatti performs "Vanya" - first straight, and then with Soul Lite (the 5 percent residual soul left after extraction), and later with a soul borrowed from a Russian poet - make for delicious high comedy. In the movie's peak moments, the middle, almost hollow Giamatti decides to go daringly low with Yelena. Yet Giamatti is such a consummate performer that these snippets make you hunger to see him perform "Vanya" complete on stage.

Can any other actor do as much with his eyes? They're like emotional thermometers. And his voice is the sound of rippling intelligence. Giamatti is perfect at the center of "Cold Souls," the kind of sardonic lark that triggers more silent laughter than belly laughs. Against all odds, it proves to be haunting, too.

The writer-director, Sophie Barthes, stays true to fairy-tale and literary notions of souls while surrounding them with sleek sci-fi paraphernalia. The characters simply grow to know that souls are incredibly resilient and the source of that mysterious essence we call, for lack of a better word, "identity." It makes sense that the man in charge of soul extraction and storage, Dr. Flintstine, would extract souls without knowing much about soulfulness - or soullessness, either. Like many American medical businessmen, all he really cares about are short-term results. David Strathairn is marvelous as Flintstine: He manages to be alarming even when he's soothing.

The plot takes Giamatti to St. Petersburg with a female Russian transporter, a soul-storage "mule." It's marvelous to see Russian spiritual pride enmeshed in an increasingly gritty look at an unregulated industry. Giamatti strikes sparks both with the always lucid Emily Watson, as his smart, beleaguered wife, and with the subtly empathetic Dina Korzun, as the mule. Just when the movie verges on archness or pathos, it taps a true stream of fellow-feeling. In this movie, as in life, your soul is something you can't really give away. As in Chekhov, or in Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment," it has a way of catching up with you.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for nudity and brief strong language)

Running time: 1:41

Starring: Paul Giamatti (Paul Giamatti), David Strathairn (Dr. Flintstine)

A Samuel Goldwyn release. Directed by Sophie Barthes

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