We all dream of a world where we can turn off our dark thoughts and wriggling fears. A world where bad things happen, but we don't care because we have cheeseburgers, and look, there is a bunny. Perhaps we can pet it.
Most times, you need a mountain temple or a traumatic brain injury to reach that level of calmness. In 2009's Cold Souls, all you have to do is give up your soul.
Actor Paul Giamatti is struggling with his latest role. In desperation, he goes to David Strathairn, a scientist offering a new service: the temporary removal and storage of the soul. Giamatti's unburdened. But when he goes to get it back, he finds it's been stolen by a Russian soul-trafficking operation.
Traditionally, the soul is what makes you you. The heart of your being. It's to blame for why I argue with my cats when no one's looking. In Cold Souls , things are a little different. When Giamatti extracts his, he becomes a terrible actor onstage, fakey and witlessly enthusiastic. Writer/director Sophie Barthes uses "soul" in the sense of "that dude's got soul."
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As usual, Giamatti is great. The guy's as dependable as an airline isn't. He takes on a role where he has to play himself, himself minus a soul, and himself wearing someone else's soul. For an actor, this is probably in some ways a dream, but it could easily have been one of those ones where you can't wake up no matter how many bites the coyotes take out of your legs.
But even he can't make all the details stick. The soul is a nebulous idea, and while Cold Souls makes itself fairly clear, sometimes the rules are a little obscure. When this happens, the stakes get muddy too.
Or maybe it's just hard for me to follow sometimes because I sold my soul in 2003 for a parking spot at the mall. (Hey, it was snowy out.) And on the other hand, it's nice that Barthes steers away from getting too heavy-handedly metaphorical. That would have been an easy road to take. And probably a bad one that knocks pipes loose from the bottom of your car.
Cold Souls is science fiction where the science is just a jumping-off point. Quiet, funny in a brittle way, it isn't perfect -- it slows down in the second half, and some of its symbolism was lost on me. But it's a nice little indie movie with enough imagination to keep me on watch for Barthes' next work.
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