The Unbearable Lightness of Being Paul Giamatti
Dir. Sophie Barthes, U.S., Samuel Goldwyn Films
The character actor's curse is the risk of being—no, the need to be—constantly self-parodic, cartoonishly repeating the quirks and ticks of a role allotted to him by popular taste (or uncreative casting agents). In Paul Giamatti's case, notwithstanding the rather game attitude the actor puts across in interviews, the role is one of a hopeless, emotionally hamstrung neurotic. With few anomalies (John Adams!), Giamatti has been riding his particular character-actor niche pretty hard since 2004's Sideways—and who can blame him? Tweak with a little bile (as Harvey Pekar in American Splendor), a little jollity (as Fred Claus's more famous brother), or a little pomposity (in the rather dumb The Illusionist), and Giamatti's stock character can fit a high-profile supporting role in basically every other movie that comes out of Hollywood. In Sophie Barthes's Cold Souls, however, the irritating, self-involved person that Paul Giamatti plays is Paul Giamatti, a semi-famous actor and tortured artiste, burdened with the metaphysical heaviness of performing Chekhov and a lifetime of apparently complex emotions.
Borrowing the life of a name actor—even a name character actor—for a character in one's film is an increasingly common tack, one that probably seems irresistible flattery to the actor in question and a convenient shortcut for the screenwriter. Why write a character when you can use a real person? But from the film's outset, placing Giamatti's irritable man-child persona center-stage causes some problems. In a film as purportedly self-reflexive as Cold Souls, the decision to cast Paul Giamatti as himself presumes that we recognize the actor's persona as fully and immediately as that of, say, John Malkovich. But when we see the actor breathily rehearsing the title role of Uncle Vanya, chewing scenery before the stage has even been set, we realize that Giamatti's usual character—at least, the one that Cold Souls wishes to exploit—is paper-thin, working better on the periphery than in the center of the narrative.
When Giamatti finds himself overwhelmed with anxiety over the Chekhov performance, he does what all nebbishy New York actors do: he listens to his agent and reads the New Yorker. Here he finds an article on soul storage—a newfangled process of removing one's soul (or about 95% of it) to get on with one's day without emotional disruption. After a quick trip to Dr. Flintstein's bright, white, quasifuturistic office on Roosevelt Island (the natural home of soul removal) and much vexed hand-wringing and stuttering equivocation, Giamatti is back on his feet, completely emotionally unburdened and feeling unlike the usual Paul Giamatti we all (sort of) know and (rarely) love. Naturally, this sets into motion a plot full of soul-switching and metaphysical mishaps, involving a soul-trafficking black market operated by some Russian mob types. And it also turns out that having a soul is an important part of being an actor, so removing the twisted soul of Paul Giamatti proves an unwise career move.
But once Giamatti is locked into the wacky narrative groove, with his soul switched and re-switched for those of other people (including, at one point, a supposed Russian poetess), it becomes apparent that the film is fairly limited in its ambitions. Perhaps I was distracted by the promising portentousness of Ms. Barthes’s surname, or the occasional shout-outs to such big shots as Heraclitus and Descartes, but it turns out that Cold Souls is not a film to be taken too seriously; its details do not bear a great deal of scrutiny. Though Giamatti goes through a variety of conditions with respect to his soul or soullessness (including, notably, one congress with the soul of a poetic Russian laborer woman), he behaves virtually identically in every scene, but for some hasty gags about insensitivity and fashion. At the same time, while we know the actor is weighed down by a soul of great neurotic heft, we never know (or care) why. Hints at an emotional inner world arrive late in a hallucinatory dream sequence, but they mean little by this point. Even Emily Watson, who valiantly labors as Paul's long-suffering wife with almost nothing to work with, skulks around her dear hubby Paul as though she has just met him. No wonder he doesn't bother to tell her about his surgery until about three-quarters of the way through the film. (For the record, I would infinitely prefer a light self-reflexive dramedy about Watson.)
Watson's presence is just one of many wasted performances here. With all the attention given to Giamatti's star persona, one almost overlooks the work of Watson, David Strathairn (always fun to watch, here as the silver-tongued Dr. Flintstein), and especially Dina Korzun, who plays a contemplative Russian soul-mule. Similarly, the film occasionally achieves some delicate moods—producer-cinematographer Andrij Parekh gives the film a look of blurry, wintry lyricism, and the score by Tindersticks' Dickon Hinchcliffe is typically gorgeous—but though determined to seem erudite and self-conscious, the film insists instead on cuteness and playfulness alongside a rather bogus flirtation with the metaphysical.
This ultimately makes for a conventional and derivative exercise that does very little to exceed or contradict the "Charlie Kaufmann Lite" tag it practically screams. Dipping its toe into shallow philosophical waters, Cold Souls seems content to cater to an uptown appetite for well-worn Woody Allenisms about therapy and bourgeois urban living. (Indeed, the screenplay was spawned by a dream Barthes had in which Allen, not Giamatti, had a chickpea for a soul.) Frankly, the tiresome soul-storage pretext—with shots of bulky medical equipment and outpatients with their souls floating in little designer water bottlesCold Souls—is so malformed that the film might as well have had the temerity to tackle its real subject: Prozac. Like soul storage, Prozac also serves to suppress emotion (and sexual appetite) in order to make things seem, in Dr. Flintstein's words, “more functional and purposeful,” or to make people feel—as Paul does—light, empty, and a little bored. This might have made for a more plausible, even more emotionally honest film, but compared to half-baked, quasi-sci-fi, Prozac isn't perhaps such a sexy subject. Then again, neither is Paul Giamatti.