Cold Souls set out an ambitious task: tell a Charlie Kaufman-style tale about a company that extracts and leases human souls. But, tragically, the result is a film more interested in explaining its ideas than telling a compelling story.
Paul Giamatti plays a fictionalized version of himself, that we're supposed to understand as a composite of his more neurotic film characters. He's a successful actor, but anxious, deeply emotional — and he suffers. In what way Paul suffers, we never actually see; we're simply told flat-out that he does.
Paul's emotions have become an obstacle to his work. He's been cast in Anton Chekov's Uncle Vanya, but Paul is somehow unable to separate himself from his character mentally, and rehearsals have not been going well. His director is sympathetic, but tells Paul that he's taking the role too seriously.
A possible answer comes one afternoon while Paul is screening his phone calls. His agent leaves him a message, mentioning an article in this week's New Yorker that could be the solution to all his problems. Paul digs out the magazine and spots an article about a company that extracts and stores human souls, subtitled "Are New Yorkers tired of carrying around their souls?" Paul hardly reads the article, but immediately and impulsively calls the facility and makes an appointment. After a remarkably awkward conversation with soullessness advocate Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn), Paul enters the soul extractor (a retrofuturistic MRI that looks like it was stolen from a James Bond film) and soon has his chick pea-shaped soul (or rather, 95 percent of it; five percent of his soul is still in there) in a jar.
Cold Souls is practically begging to be compared to the sorts of films Charlie Kaufman writes. There is the actor playing himself, just as John Malkovich does in Being John Malkovich. Paul impulsively submits to a shocking medical procedure that fundamentally alters his being, much like Jim Carrey's character does in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Even Lauren Ambrose as Dr. Flintstein's pretty, unquestioning assistant seems to close a match for Kirsten Dunst's similar role in Eternal Sunshine. But it's an unfortunate comparison, as Sophie Barthes, who wrote and directed the film, has failed to channel Kaufman's gift for storytelling or Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry's visuals and sense of timing.
Barthes has the challenge of explaining what the consequences of losing one's soul are, a concept that isn't as straightforward and readily understood as erasing a person from your memory. We could have used a dose of Woody Allen here, with Paul hearing about the procedure at dinner parties with a measure of scandal and intrigue; rumors could fly that certain actors had enjoyed success after their souls had been removed; soul extraction could be the hot topic on NPR. But Paul submits to the extraction so early on in the movie that we must rely on Giamatti's not inconsiderable acting skills to convey the meaning of soullessness. Paul stages tests to figure out what's changed. He sniffs perfume, weighs himself, takes photos of himself and compares them obsessively to existing photographs. Eventually, it becomes apparent that, without a soul, Paul is disconnected from himself and from other people. It transforms him into a potential Tao master (an idea I get the sense Barthes longed to explore further), but it also makes him a sociopath, unconcerned with his friends, distant from his wife (a strangely underutilized Emily Watson), and incapable of imbuing Uncle Vanya with the proper emotion.
All this time, we've been seeing a second character as well, although her role in the story has not been apparent. She is Nina, a trafficker in human souls. Nina purchases souls from poor, dying, and emotionally overburdened Russians, and then functions as a mule, carrying the souls within her body to America (souls, we are told, are too volatile at high altitudes to travel outside a human host). Once in the US, she sells the souls to Flintstein's practice so that his clients can rent the souls. But, since we see Nina at work long before we learn that it's possible to rent a soul, it's not clear what she's up to, and Barthes doesn't make it clear when Nina is in Russia and when she is in the US.
The soul-renting portion of the plot, which we get to in the second act when Paul realizes he can't do Vanya without a soul, is the strongest bit of the entire film. Paul winds up renting a Russian soul, which changes him. It's a nice inversion of Dollhouse, examining what happens when you absorb the essence of a person without his or her memories, while looking at the exploitation of the foreign workers by affluent Americans. Are souls, after all, really that much more shocking than sweatshop handbags and shoes? And Paul finds that having access to a Russian soul can come in very handy when performing a Russian play.
Unfortunately, we get little of this notion of trying out other people's souls, before the pesky plot pushes us hastily along to the third act along to the third act, where there's soul stealing, a Russian mobster, and a beautiful but talentless soap opera star who wants to own an American actor's soul.
Cold Souls is a strangely linear film for one so bursting of ideas, with little in the way of subplot or texture. Paul is the only client of Dr. Flintstein whom we see more than in passing, and because the entire film is crammed with Paul's experiences with souls, there isn't room for anything else. We have no sense of what Paul's home life is like, who his friends are, what he's like when he does have his soul. At some point, Nina tells Paul that he needs more levity in his life. We can choose to believe that it's true, because Paul went through this soul extracting business in the first place, but we wouldn't really know; since we never see him in his own skin (or rather, his soul in his own skin), we don't know if he needs levity or not. Barthes tries to compensate for this thinness by adding small, self-consciously quirky moments, but the attempts come off as awkward attempts at Kaufman-esque eccentricity, wedged into a universe where they simply don't fit.
This isn't to say that Cold Souls is a boring movie, or that it doesn't show a lot of promise for Barthes as a filmmaker. Barthes' ideas are interesting, even if her insistence at squeezing every notion she has into the movie comes at the expense of the story, and there are a few moments that are genuinely and uniquely weird. And, when one character takes Paul's soul from Flintstein's storage facility, we see a reversal of the same shot we saw of Paul when he went to the facility in the first place — a brand of visual cue I would have liked to have seen more. But anyone hoping that Barthes has already revealed herself as the heir to Charlie Kaufman will be ultimately disappointed. Barthes has a voice in there somewhere, for explaining her strange ideas, but trying to borrow Kaufman's only keeps Cold Souls from heating up.