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COLD SOULS (director/writer: Sophie Barthes; cinematographer: Andrij Parekh; editor: Andrew Mondshein; music: Dickon Hinchliffe; cast: Paul Giamatti (Paul Giamatti), David Strathairn (Dr. Flintstein), Dina Korzun (Nina), Katheryn Winnick (Sveta), Lauren Ambrose (Stephanie), Emily Watson (Claire), Sergei Kolesnikov (Dimitri), Anna Dukova (Olga), Michael Aronov (Mafioso), Michael Stuhlbarg (Hedge Fund Consultant), Michael Tucker (Theater Director); Runtime: 101; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Andrij Parekh/Dan Carey/Elizabeth Giamatti/Paul Mezey/Jeremy Kipp Walker; Samuel Goldwyn Films; 2009)
“A high-concept Russian flavored black comedy.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A high-concept Russian flavored black comedy written and directed by Sophie Barthes (“Happiness”), a former Sundance screenwriters and directors lab fellow, that asks the philosophical question of who would you be if you were without a soul. Ms. Barthes told interviewers that she ‘wrote the script after waking from a life-altering dream that was brought on by reading a Carl Jung book.’ The metaphysical comedy resembles “Being John Malkovich,” as Barthes mixes reality with fantasy but never makes it real funny and her conventional approach to what should have been an absurdist surreal riot never quite materializes as anything more than banal comedy. It even ends with a pat but not a particularly convincing conclusion that happiness isn’t the absence of suffering, but the person’s ability to experience all the emotions that are part of the human experience.

An anxiety-driven successful New York actor named Paul Giamatti (Himself) can’t get into his tragicomical starring part, that actors would kill for, during rehearsals for Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” and stumbles upon a unique solution while reading an article in The New Yorker about a high-tech company that extracts, stores and trades on the market souls as commodities. The actor has the lab on Roosevelt Island extract his chickpea soul temporarily to play the part and has it stored on the clinic grounds in a bank-like vault, but when the play is a hit and he goes to retrieve his soul he finds its been stolen by Russian soul traffickers who have deals with the clinic run by the earnest mad scientist NY lab head named Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn) and his attractive assistant Stephanie (Lauren Ambrose).

The concerned actor has for the time being a Russian poet’s soul implanted but seeks his own again as arranged, but when he finds its been stolen he is directed to the Russian “mule” Nina (Dina Korzun) who is fingered as the thief. She smuggles black-market Russian souls into the United States. When Paul locates Nina, he tells his startled wife Claire (Emily Watson) that he’s off with her to St. Petersburg to retrieve his soul. Nina removed Paul’s soul for the aspiring actress wife (Katheryn Winnick) of her boss Dimitri (Sergei Kolesnikov) so she can be in a Russian soap opera. Though when the actress finds its Paul’s soul she has and not Al Pacino’s as her untrustworthy mafioso hubby promised, she rails at him.

It sounds like it should be wildly funny, but aside from a few whimsical delightful moments the comedy and the absurd existential situation, trying to veer between true soul searching humor and pathos, never firmly takes hold as a soulful film with much bite and never lets its smart premise be fully realized down an unexpected path as one would expect in such a dark comedy setting.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”