“Jesus Christ, just tell me where the hell my soul is!”
I do not like Paul Giamatti, whose acting ability normally hovers around the nil mark. “[S]low, selfconscious and way over the top” is how I described his performance in Cinderella Man (Ron Howard, 2005); I found him “leaden” in The Illusionist (Neil Burger, 2006), and noted this about Julian Goldberger’s The Hawk Is Dying (2006):
the visual and every other aspect of the film are compromised by the lead actor’s impassive face (even when he is supposed to be crying!), unnuanced rendering of a complicated character, and annoyingly perfect, even teeth. Paul Giamatti gives an atrocious performance that scarcely ever strikes a believable note.
What part could this criminally inept actor ever manage to play well? Why, Paul Giamatti could play Paul Giamatti! Indeed, Giamatti is so good in Cold Souls, where he plays some version of himself (an actor named Paul Giamatti), that he is, if anything, even better than John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999), which purportedly got inside Malkovich’s head.
It is not Giamatti’s head but his soul that’s at stake in Cold Souls, a brilliant sci-fi satirical comedy by writer-director Sophie Barthes. Giamatti, not knowing the difference between himself and his role as Uncle Vanya while in rehearsal for a production of the Chekhov play, decides to have his soul extracted for a couple of weeks to relieve his torment and anxiety. The extraction is performed by a high-tech company that operates as a hedge fund; 95% of Giamatti’s soul, the size, it turns out, of a chickpea, is taken out of him. “How do you feel?” Dr. Flintstein asks Giamatti post-operation. The immediate reply: “Hollow.” He can’t make love with his wife, Claire (Emily Watson, exquisitely perplexed)! At rehearsal, he is unfettered and aggressive—not exactly Chekhovian! He asks Flintstein for his soul back: “I’m dry as a bone. I can’t feel a thing.” Unfortunately, Nina (Dina Korzun*), a black marketeer in Russian soul-trafficking and a “mule” hired by Flintstein to transport souls, has “borrowed” Giamatti’s soul for the wife of Flintstein’s thuggish Russian counterpart, who believes she has been given Al Pacino’s soul. Big laugh: Giamatti’s consternation when he learns that this woman whose body is housing his soul is an actress on a television soap opera!
Giamatti’s trip with Nina to St. Petersburg, to reclaim his soul, finds the film thinning into a standard actioner; but, back in the States, the film reclaims its soul with a poignant turn of events regarding Nina.
This is a wonderful, truly funny film—and with a message: Hold on to your soul! Whatever its imperfections, don’t trade it in for ease, wealth, power, whatever.
* I named Korzun best actress of 2005 for her role in Ira Sachs’s Forty Shades of Blue.
B(U)Y THE BOOK
MY BOOK, A Short Chronology of World Cinema, IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FROM THE SANDS FILMS CINEMA CLUB IN LONDON. USING EITHER OF THE LINKS BELOW, ACCESS THE ADVERTISEMENT FOR THIS BOOK, FROM WHICH YOU CAN ORDER ONE OR MORE COPIES OF IT. THANKS.