On the surface, "Cold Souls" feels like an unoriginal original. It's being marketed on its offbeat uniqueness, though clearly draws influence from the work of Charlie Kaufman. The trailer plays up a safe weirdness and deadpan comedy that risks alienating exactly no one, but fortunately, paints an incomplete picture of what "Cold Souls" actually is.
Granted, the template is very "Being John Malkovich," (make that "Being Paul Giamatti") and thematically, the two films cover a lot of common ground. "Cold Souls," however, is unassuming and straight-forward, earnest and intelligent, and dedicated enough to its voice that it never feels like a work of plagiarism. The film is mellow and contained, where "Malkovich" is loopy, surreal, and expansive. We begin with a simple supposition: the human soul can, through a specialized procedure, be extracted from the human body.
That's our big buy, and the focus of the film is on the implications of that premise on an intimate and an economic scale. Enter Paul Giamatti, who's struggling with his performance in an adaptation of Chekov's "Uncle Vanya." Giamatti's performance is layered and nuanced, and playing himself proves one of his most difficult and rewarding roles yet. The "Vanya" rehearsals and performances highlight the three different versions of himself he plays: Giamatti, Giamatti sans soul, and Giamatti endowed with the soul of a Russian poet (guess which one performs "Vanya" best).
The better part of the film, however, is an exploration of the soul trafficking trade. Giamatti's soul is stolen by a Russian black market mule, and when soullessness and uncomfortable surrogate souls convince Paul to turn back to himself, he departs for St. Petersburg for some literal soul searching.
The human soul as a physical commodity is the basis for the major thematic and philosophical underpinnings of the film, along with the implication of soul transplant, which interestingly leaves a residue that accumulates during transfers. These shards of identity linger, and in a particularly amusing scene, the soul mule finds herself at a Russian video store asking for any American movie starring Paul Giamatti ("Paul Giamatti?" repeats the clerk). The playful jabs at celebrity (Giamatti's soul is later confused for Al Pacino's), the sci-fi/ existentialist themes, and the terrific performance(s) by Mr. Giamatti grow to wholly transcend any uncouth comparisons to "Being John Malkovich," obvious as the inspiration is.
"Cold Souls" is actually more reserved and mature than most of Kaufman's films, substituting arbitrary oddity for worldly wherewithal. Perhaps director Sophie Barthes' biggest (though relatively lonely) flaw in writing and directing the film is not digging deep enough. "Cold Souls" is a small but surprisingly successful piece with an asterisk that despite a big idea, its ambition is kept in constant check, and it's disappointing she doesn't take the premise further. Then again, Kaufman's sort of staked himself out as the Cecil B DeMille of strange, and a quiet nod to his work may be the most authentic. "Cold Souls" is one of the better indies this year, and if it lacks in originality, it compensates in substance.