“Is your SOUL weighing you down?” In dark times, the weight of our souls can feel physically crushing. But what if you could just opt out of the emotional heft by chucking your soul into storage? That is the surreal and supremely humorous premise of writer/director Sophie Barthes’s feature Cold Souls. Blending sci-fi drama with dark comedy, this daring debut feature dives into identity and existential dread with brilliant irreverence and profound compassion.
Paul Giamatti stars as himself! Faced with a new theatrical production of Chekov’s Vanya, the heralded actor is overburdened by his soul. So, taking a cue from a New Yorker article, he jumps on the soul storage trend, only to find soullessness turns his Vanya performance into tone-deaf bellowing. But you can never go home again. Discovering his soul has been hijacked by a trafficking ring, the flummoxed actor must entreat the help of a mule (who smuggles souls through TSA in her own body) to track it down.
The inspiration for the film came from Woody Allen, but in an indirect and suitably surreal way. See, Barthes had a dream where she met the iconic humorist in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. There both sat with a box on their knees, each containing their extracted souls. She has recollected how Allen was irritable and anxious about the appearance of his disembodied soul. Like Giamatti’s in Cold Souls, it resembled a humble chickpea. Though Barthes’ dream concluded before she peeked in the box, the clever writer awoke with the base of her celebrated screenplay.
“My first impulse was to write for Woody Allen,” Barthes told IndieWire following Cold Souls Sundance debut in 2009. “But I thought I would most probably never have access to him. When I saw American Splendor, I was so impressed by Paul Giamatti’s presence and emotional charge on screen that I decided to write for him.”
Barthes submitted the Giamatti-centric script in the screenwriting competition of the Nantucket Film Festival. And while attending the posh fest, she enjoyed a fateful run-in with the lauded performer himself. Years ago, I attended a Q&A where she recounted how their conversation led to talk of her screenplay. The meeting felt too kismet to let it pass without pitching the script she’d written for him. Giamatti politely told her to send it his way. Though Barthes did straight away, she didn’t expect she’d ever hear back. Yet by weekend’s end, he’d gladly agreed to be her satirized star, kicking the production into gear.
Though the film earned a coveted spot at Sundance and mostly positive reviews, one recurring criticism ate away at Cold Souls’ reputation. Detractors claimed Barthes’ film was not so much an original idea as it was derivative of Allen’s and Charlie Kaufman’s comedies. But to reduce Cold Souls to some sort of art house rip-off is to willfully ignore the sum of its parts. Sure, both Allen’s Sleeper and Barthe’s Cold Souls deal with the temptations of new tech and how it might alienate us from our humanity. And a crass connecting line can be drawn between Giamatti literally soul-searching in this quirky adventure and John Malkovich falling down the rabbit’s hole into his own mind in Being John Malkovich. But beyond these strained similarities, Barthes has brought a unique tenderness and bite of bitter that makes the jokes in Cold Souls shine all the brighter.
There are broad jokes, like Giamatti’s over-the-top acting on stage, and a great zinger where the smug star cringes over his soul being stored in Jersey. David Strathairn swings in with a vivid lunacy as an amoral salesman, and Katheryn Winnick brings an airy joviality as a demanding gangster’s moll. But under all this is a self-aware pathos. “I don’t need to be happy,” Giamatti explains of his desire to disembody his soul, “I just don’t want to suffer.” Yet it is the suffering soul of a Russian woman forced into soul trafficking that will be this stilted man’s catharsis and revelation.
Dina Korzun plays Nina, the soul mule/the under-valued other half of Cold Souls. Through silent gazes, Korzun communicates a raw longing and painful powerlessness. She glides into an elegant dance studio as if from another movie, another reality far removed from Giamatti and his meager First World problems. We see her stroll through poverty-ravaged Russia, collecting souls with sad eyes, a quick pitch, and a no frills business card.
The need of the impoverished drive them to her, and their pain makes for souls rich with emotion for those who want to play tourist to true struggle. These souls and struggles stain Nina’s self, their residue adding up with each smuggle overseas. A moody waltz plays as her theme, guiding us through her tragedy, and down the path where she will collide with Giamatti. And then begins a deliciously bittersweet and lightly loony journey to Russia. There he must reclaim his stolen soul from an affluent aspiring actress, who believes it belongs to Al Pacino. (Let Giamatti’s fool be spared no indignation!)
Barbed with wit yet brimming with humanity, Cold Souls is one of the most underrated comedies of the 21st century. It’s not rip-roaring, but wry, sharp and satisfying. Giamatti faces down the challenge of not only playing himself as a wallowing, self-obsessed New Yorker, but also with curious variations dependent on his soul status. And with each, he gives a turn that is strange, silly, and strikingly relatable. Korzun provides his perfect foil, icy where he is fiery, mysterious where he is manic. Together they build an unlikely and unforgettable tale of soul mates that is equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking.