COLD SOULS (Dir. Sophie Barnes, 2009)
The set-up is straight from Charlie Kaufman 101 (or for you old schoolers - consult your Twilight Zone text books): Man walks into a Doctor's office, not just any Doctor's office mind you, for a fantastical existential service that he only just heard about. Skeptical but desperate, the man undergoes some sort of surgery on his psyche. In the aftermath, in episode after episode the man's life goes more and more askew and he returns to the Doctor to get that extracted piece of him back.
I know, you're saying "I've heard this one before...", but what makes this particular mundane exercise in surrealism is that the man in question is Paul Giamatti playing himself. Well, a version of himself in which he is a tormented stage actor who relates too intensely with Chekov's "Uncle Vanya" character as he prepares for the role in an off Broadway play. Oh, and his wife (named Claire - Giamatti's real life wife is named Elizabeth), is played by Emily Watson so there's that too.
When Giamatti's agent points out an article in the New Yorker about soul storage, he can't resist checking out the institute in the profile. A contrite Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn) makes the process very appealing to our protagonist Paul who proclaims: "I don't want to be happy; I just need to not suffer."
I was surprised how little of this was played for laughs. For any of a number of film makers such material would be a launching pad for a bevy of comedic premises but Barnes' film wants to keep a straight face and let the amusement come from a number of well played understated moments. Our hapless hero's reaction to his bottled soul looking like a chick pea, his strained soul-less acting in rehearsals that trouble his director along with fellow cast members, and his exasperated eye bulging at the prospect of his soul being stolen (or "borrowed") are all Giamatti gold.
However, there's much more to COLD SOULS than just a Charlie Kaufman-mode Giamatti work-out. Nina Korzun as a "mule" for trafficking souls has a piercing presence that hints at a bigger back story. The eerie implications of left over residue built up from the many souls Korzun has transported aren't underlined but felt nonetheless. Giamatti's obsession with a soul he "rents" - that of a Russian poet is equally subtle and emotionally effective.
The second half of the film concerns Giamatti travelling to track down his soul to a scenic yet dreary St. Petersburg, Russia. Icy isolation torments Giamatti as he shuffles down the streets and in a pivotal scene, set inside his soul, reminiscent (in a good way) of his schlepping through a white soundstage backdrop in AMERICAN SPLENDOR. This cranky curmudgeon has to finally acknowledge that a tiny piece of suffering is worth weathering the elements in a foreign land. Even if it is just the size of a chick pea.