A fanciful tale about the scientific removal and reinsertion of souls into the human body, Sophie Barthes’s Cold Souls strives to affect the loony metaphysical spirit of Charlie Kaufman’s work. Suffice it to say that, aside from an initial burst of surrealistic kookiness, Barthes is no Kaufman, a situation that might be less deleterious if her not-wacky-enough conceit held up to any scrutiny or her portrait of the difficulty of self-analysis wasn’t so thin.
Wracked with chest pains caused by intense attachment to the Uncle Vanya role he’s currently rehearsing, Paul Giamatti (playing himself) heads to a New Yorker-featured enterprise run by David Strathairn’s Dr. Flintstein that seeks to ease patient’s emotional distress (“the unbearable weight”) by removing their souls. It’s a setup whose bizarreness is augmented by the business office’s ‘70s-style décor and white-orb equipment, the fact that souls can take a variety of shapes, and that Giamatti’s resembles a chickpea. Barthes’s Manhattan, Brighton Beach, and St. Petersburg locales provide exterior frigidness to match the interior chill plaguing Giamatti, who soon finds himself unable to not only act but feel, much to the chagrin of his wife (a wasted Emily Watson).
That souls can be put on and/or discarded is Barthes’s apparent metaphor for the process of acting, a notion furthered by the discovery that extracted souls leave lingering residue. The writer-director’s premise, however, is built upon a rickety foundation—namely, that Giamatti is an expressive thespian who’s afraid of introspection and doesn’t recognize that, however painful they may be, the emotions created by the soul constitute the very fiber of his being, and that their elimination might be personally and professionally disastrous. Despite the fundamental phoniness of this scenario, Giamatti goes through with the procedure and then immediately regrets it, causing him to seek out his chickpea, which has in the meantime wound up in the middle of a Russian-soul-trafficking subplot that, unlike the early, playful Giamatti sequences, affects a leadenly grave tone.
Alas, whether going for humor—which here devolves into characters articulating the current situation with “Can you believe we’re talking about souls?” astonishment and/or exasperation—or for ruminative Jungian-philosophy drama, Cold Souls is a skillfully shot, well-acted, thoroughly unconvincing, and unaffecting put-on.