Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Cold Souls

By Elise Nakhnikian

“People come here and they all want to know if the soul is immortal, and how it functions – and we haven’t a clue,” says Cold Souls’ Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn).

It’s a funny line, but it’s also a bit of a cheat. And that pretty well sums up this moderately entertaining art-house film, which skims the surface of a lot of interesting ideas without ever diving in.

Cold Souls isn’t really about souls, any more than Hitchcock’s thrillers were about the MacGuffins he threw in to set the plots in motion. In the end, it's a dryly funny commentary on the marketing and black marketing of quickie “cures” for 21st-century angst and alienation – which are, of course, caused in no small part by our overreliance on quickie cures.

The main character is Paul Giamatti, an actor played by Paul Giamatti. A comically exaggerated version of the whiny nerds Giamatti often plays, the movie's Paul comes off like an agitated muppet, or maybe one of David Schwimmer’s less charming characters, minus the looks.

Paul is suffering through an existential crisis, but, as Cold Souls points out with atypical literal-mindedness, he refuses to search his own soul to see what the matter might be. Instead, he visits a soul extraction clinic on Roosevelt Island, where the silver-haired, silver-tongued Dr. Flintstein easily persuades him that he’ll feel much better if he just takes the pesky thing out and stores it in one of their vaults.

That cures his blues, but it creates a whole new problem: He starts to feel "empty" and his acting suffers. He's rehearsing the lead for Uncle Vanya, so he borrows a Russian soul, which gets him back on track. Then he decides he wants his own back -- but it's missing.

Here the two main parts of the plot-heavy story intersect, as a group of Russian soul smugglers we've been getting to know gets hold of Paul's soul for the boss’s wife, Sveta (Katheryn Winnick, who looks a lot like Scarlett Johansson), a soap opera actress so vapid she actually wants an American soul. Paul heads to St. Petersburg to reclaim his soul, guided by Nina (Dina Korzun), a stony-faced Russian soul mule who turns out to be every bit as alienated and depressed as he is (or is she just Russian?).

The first feature by writer/director Sophie Barthes, Cold Souls maintains a strong and consistent tone. Cinematographer/producer Andrij Parekh, who collaborated with Barthes on a couple of short films before this one, bathes the scenes in a soft, clear light, working in a palette heavy on silvery grays and blues. The moody music also helps set the tone without intruding.

Paul's New York City is a luxe, Woody Allen-esque Manhattan of actors, pricey restaurants, and spacious apartments lined with bookshelves, though he also spends a fair amount of time floating above the city on the Roosevelt Island tram or haunting the boardwalk in Brighton Beach, where the Russian underground stay when they're in town. It's a lushly beautiful but cold city. It's also oddly empty: in shot after shot, Paul broods alone in some public place.

Cold Souls implies that the soul functions as a kind of supergo, keeping our narcissism in check and generating empathy. Giamatti has some fun with his brief period of soullessness, playing the title role in Uncle Vanya like a Hun on steroids (“I don’t think he should always be so passive, so hopeless,” he tells his director). But after installing the Russian soul, he behaves pretty much the way he did before only without the black moods, and the woman who takes in his soul doesn't change her behavior a bit.

That makes you wonder: Are those things in storage really souls? Does something other than our souls determine who we are? And just what is a soul, anyhow? But don't speculate too long or you'll lose track of this shaggy dog of a movie, which is meandering on, uninterested in exploring anything so esoteric.

If Cold Souls fails to deliver on the big ideas, it’s often good with the small stuff, including a absurdist bits like Nina repeating ridiculous phrases from a taped English lesson as she drives a silent Paul around St. Petersburg.

The movie gets in its sharpest digs in its depiction of the extraction process and the black market that grows around smuggling souls. The clinic, a sparsely furnished site dotted with midcentury-modern furnishings, borrows authority by assuming a medical mien. And the real cold souls are not so much the little lumps chilling in the clinic's storage unit as the people who take advantage of the economically or emotionally vulnerable to traffic in those souls. Among them is a smooth-talking, amoral hedge fund partner who’s bankrolling the business. More chilling than Sveta's gangster husband, he's a real modern villain.

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