Tuesday, August 4, 2009

COLD SOULS: Giamatti does Vanya in Barthes' comedy of (acting) manners

Simply for the chance to see the wonderful Paul Giamatti essay Uncle Vanya from three different perspectives -- that of a typical actor trying his best, as a soulless (literally) performer, and finally possessed of the much-vaunted "Russian" soul -- TrustMovies is recommending Sophie Barthes' new mistaken-identity (soul variety) comedy COLD SOULS. Even if you are not a Chekhov aficionado, there is plenty more

to seduce you in this writer/director's don't-show-us-the-expected bit of smart, sci-fi fluff.

Made, I suspect, on a very small budget, Ms. Barthes' movie is economical is more ways than one. Her concept -- Mr. Giamatti (shown in each of these photos below and on the poster, above), who is playing an actor named Paul Giamatti (which is not, I think, quite the same thing as playing "oneself"), has his attention called to a recent article in The New Yorker (inspired bit of satire, that!) about a company that removes and stores your soul. Why, exactly, anyone would want this procedure done to himself is a question that comes up and is quickly shoved aside, as is the equally unbelievable premise of Lynn Shelton's current Humpday. Both films ask us to suspend our disbelief in order to put ourselves in the shoes of their protagonists and, afterward, have a amusing time watching these guys come to terms with their decision.

Ms Barthes (shown behind the camera, two photos above) rarely raises her film-making voice; things proceed in a dry, relatively evenhanded manner, and the humor bubbles up in odd places, almost in spite of itself. Naturally (or so it seemed to me), the Russian mob is involved in the black market for these souls-on-ice, and so many of the cast members -- Giamatti, the very lovely Dina Korzun (shown below, at right, who plays the Russian "mule" who carries these illegally-trafficked souls), David Strathairn (shown at left in the photo above, who is the doctor in charge of the project) and Lauren Ambrose (relatively wasted here as Strathairn's assistant) -- must involve themselves, too. Also on hand are Emily Watson as Giamatti's wife and Katheryn Winnick (as a gorgeous and hugely untalented Russian actress married to a Mafia boss) who covets the soul of a particular American actor. (Just who this actor is becomes one of the film's finer jokes; another is that Mr. Giamatti's soul bears a remarkable resemblance to a chick pea.)

The very subject that Ms Barthes has chosen -- the soul, that unknowable, perhaps non-existent, breath of life that renders us different from artificial intelligence -- is an odd one. And if the filmmaker only partially does it justice, I was more than happy to sit and watch and wonder at what she has made of it and its place in the life of that weakest, wildest of artists -- the actor. Her finale, in particular, plays with perception and identity in interesting ways. If you're looking for something different, intelligent and humorous, I don't think you'll go wrong with Cold Souls.

The movie open Friday, August 7, in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the Landmark Sunshine Cinema and in the Los Angeles area at The Landmark and
Arclight, Sherman Oaks; at the Playhouse 7 in Pasadena; and the Westpark in Irvine. A limited, nationwide roll-out will follow, as will, one expects, an eventual DVD release.

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