It’s profoundly unfortunate that first-time writer-director Sophie Barthes chose to saddle the protagonist of her debut feature, Cold Souls, with her leading man’s real name. If Paul Giamatti were playing anyone else, it might be possible to see the film as a weird, wicked little black-spirited comedy that lands somewhere between the bleak, funny supernatural nihilism of Wristcutters: A Love Story and the manic, directionless randomness of the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading. But having Giamatti play Paul Giamatti, sad-sack Oscar-nominated celebrity caught up in a surreal vortex of surprisingly mundane supernatural phenomena, makes it hard to see Cold Souls as anything but an attempt to parrot the giddy successes of Being John Malkovich. And while Barthes’ film has its own rewards, it doesn’t live up to that lofty standard.
As the film opens, Giamatti is playing the lead in a production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, but he’s struggling with the role and his own fussy, Woody Allen-esque philosophical dissatisfaction with life. (Cold Souls was supposedly inspired by a dream about Allen, and Giamatti functions admirably as one of the more believable Allen stand-ins outside of an actual Allen film.) Reading a New Yorker story about a new soul-removal service, Giamatti visits avuncular professional David Strathairn, who sucks out his soul and hands it to him in a jar. Unsurprisingly, Giamatti feels lighter and less bothered by life’s weighty emotions—let alone by social demands for tact and subtlety—but he naturally finds that his acting has become soulless as well. He asks for his soul back, but due to mildly ridiculous complications involving a group of Russian smugglers, it’s gone missing.
Barthes plays this fantasy perfectly straight, with Strathairn utterly matter-of-fact about the process, and Giamatti only slightly more doubtful than any actor first encountering a proposed cure-all like plastic surgery or the Lemonade Diet. But her attempts to find wry comedy in the kind of restrained, hilariously discomfiting mundanity that gave Being John Malkovich its edge (and that characterizes Charlie Kaufman’s work in general) come at the expense of any larger observations or humor about what the soul is, or the advantages and impact of soullessness, in L.A. or elsewhere. The premise seems profound, but the claustrophobically inert execution lacks reach or imagination, especially over the course of a plot that begins ambitiously, with multiple storylines and deep emotions, then gradually peters out. Cold Souls can’t live up to its most obvious ancestor, but it also has trouble living up to its own unmet potential.