Dry humor of ‘Cold Souls’ leaves chilly feeling

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, August 20, 2009 5:21pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

It would be disconcerting to be able to look at your soul and discover that the thing itself is about the size (and shape and color) of a chickpea.

This is only the latest of existential dilemmas for the central character in “Cold Souls,” an actor named Paul Giamatti who, understandably enough, is played by Paul Giamatti.

In the middle of a rehearsal for a staging of “Uncle Vanya,” he is suddenly seized by a heaviness in his soul.

Ordinarily this might be diagnosed as depression, but luckily there’s treatment.

In writer-director Sophie Barthes’ “Brave New World”-style fantasy, the various pharmaceutical methods for goosing human happiness have now extended to a medical procedure that allows the soul to be safely extracted.

So Paul finds himself sitting in the office of a Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn), the CEO of Soul Storage. For a fee, the company will remove your soul and secure it in an airtight container.

What follows is a dry — very dry — comedy. It’s hard to know what sends Paul into his new tailspin: the difficult prospect of trying to work as an actor without a soul or the knowledge that his spiritual essence could be boiled down to a garbanzo bean.

The soul-extraction is actually the point where “Cold Souls” loses its initial sense of play. Paul gets involved in some kind of spy story with Russians, the script begins to send its satirical darts in too many different directions and a general flatness takes over.

Giamatti, who can play sad sacks like nobody’s business, becomes even sad-sackier than usual, which makes for a somewhat glum viewing experience. He’s still a fine actor, as he demonstrates in the post soul-ectomy “Vanya” rehearsals: Suddenly his character can’t act at all.

These scenes are like watching a really talented singer pretend to be tone-deaf; they’re expert in locating the mistakes an untalented actor makes.

The good cast includes Emily Watson and Lauren Ambrose, but — except for Strathairn’s smoothly vapid Dr. Feelgood — really the whole show is Giamatti.

Most stories about the loss of a soul involve a Faustian sales transaction. I wonder if the flabby nature of “Cold Souls” stems from the absence of that kind of basic drama: If this spiritual crisis is more of a shrug than a tortured bargain, why should we care?

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