August 21, 2009

"Cold Souls"

Cold Souls (the title is a reference to Gogol's 1842 satire Dead Souls) is a slight metaphysical fiction movie with Paul Giamatti ("Sideways") playing Paul Giamatti. He's rehearsing to portray Chekhov's Uncle Vanya on Broadway, but all that plumbing the depths of the Russian soul is just making Giamatti more hangdog than ever. His agent points out an article in The New Yorker (unfortunately, not by Malcolm Gladwell -- the movie consistently misses chances to be funnier) about how Manhattan's elite are lightening their moods by having their souls extracted and put in cold storage at a clinic on Roosevelt Island. (According to Descartes, the soul is found in the pineal gland.)

Without his heavy soul dragging him down, Giamatti feels chipper, like I, a notably shallow-souled individual, do with nine hours of sleep: doot-de-doot-de-doot. But his soulless performance as Uncle Vanya is about as good as I could give. On the verge of getting fired, he discovers the clinic will also rent you souls, most of them smuggled out of impoverished Russia. He immediately puts his credit card down on a Russian poet's soul and knocks them dead on-stage.

Then he wants his own soul back, but the wife of the head soul-smuggler, a St. Petersburg soap opera actress, wants to rent an American Hollywood movie star's soul to help her make it big globally. Giamatti is the only American actor's soul on ice, so a Russian operative steals it from cold storage on Roosevelt Island. Unfortunately, nobody in Russia has heard of Paul Giamatti, so the thief tells the gangster's wife that it's Al Pacino's soul, which makes her very happy. Complications ensue as Giamatti flies to mid-winter St. Petersburg to retrieve his soul.

"Cold Souls" sounds like a cross between Charlie Kaufman's Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but the writer, Frenchwoman Sophie Barthes (no relation to the French intellectual) was thinking of Woody Allen movies like Purple Rose of Cairo and Sleeper, and wrote it for Woody. For an American, you have to come out of pre-1960s American highbrow/middlebrow culture, like Woody did, to automatically associate "soul" with Russian writers rather than with Motown singers.

There's little evidence of the role being tailored for Giamatti -- he appears to be playing a more generic, less funny version of the traditional Woody Allen character rather than himself -- which is a shame since he's an interesting fellow.

Giamatti is famously undistinguished looking, but he's actually a princeling of the American meritocracy. His father A. Bartlett Giamatti, the Dante scholar, was president of Yale and then (strangely enough) Baseball Commissioner, in which post he dropped dead of a heart attack during the stress of banning Pete Rose from baseball.

Cold Souls is not as well thought-out as Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine: for example, the soul extraction clinic is posh, while Kaufman's memory erasure clinic is downscale because memory erasure is a really bad idea (Jim Carrey: "Is there any danger of brain damage?" Tom Wilkinson: "Well, technically, the entire process is brain damage") that appeals mostly to losers.

So, don't expect a Kaufman-level of exploitation of the inherent opportunities in the premise. I smiled a lot through Cold Souls, but only laughed a few times. On the glass is half-full side, however, Cold Souls is a lot less dense than Kaufman's latest, Synechdoche, New York.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Acilius said...

Strange- Paul Giamatti is a bit of a Wallace Shawn lookalike, and in this movie "He's rehearsing to portray Chekhov's Uncle Vanya on Broadway." So how could you list possible influences without mentioning Louis Malle's VANYA ON 42ND STREET, a movie consisting of Wallace Shawn and others (including Andre Gregory and Julianne Moore) rehearsing a New York stage production of Uncle Vanya?

Anonymous said...

I just want to be the first to remind people of the brilliance of "Bart Sells His Soul," one of the all-time best Simpsons episodes. It was written by Greg Daniels, who also did the famous "Parking Space" episode of Seinfeld, co-created King of the Hill, and adapted the Office for the US.
Harvard alumnus, of course!

Anonymous said...

Manhattan's elite are lightening their moods by having their souls extracted... he discovers the clinic will also rent you souls... Then he wants his own soul back... a Russian operative steals it from cold storage on Roosevelt Island...

Spoiler alert?

Steve Sailer said...

All spoilers, all the time.

Deckin said...

This will sound hopelessly pedantic, but those of us with formal training in philosophy are quite often so. Descartes did not believe the soul was in the pineal gland. That would have given it a material location (like a pilot in a ship) which he explicitly rejects. His view was, rather, that the pineal gland was the material interface between the non-material soul and the material brain.