Guy walks into a doctor's office. Not for a checkup, not for an x-ray, but because his soul is weighing him down. The man is Paul Giamatti (as a fictionalized version of himself), and his angst stems from an upcoming production of Uncle Vanya in which he's the title character. He heard about the Soul Storage Company, in whose office he's now standing, from an article in The New Yorker his agent half-jokingly suggested he read. Believing his soul is hindering his performance, Paul takes the advice seriously, which leads him on a misadventure from New York to — where else? — St. Petersburg, Russia.
Such is the world that debutante filmmaker Sophie Barthes has presented to us in Cold Souls, an existential dark comedy that should either be praised for its originality or lamented for inviting unfavorable comparisons to Charlie Kaufman. Maybe both.
Though hesitant at first, Paul is won over by the persuasive Dr. Flinstein (David Strathairn), who compares the soul to a tumor and says that humans are like circus elephants trained to walk against a pole. Giamatti, less interested in philosophy than results, responds with, "I don't need to be happy. I just don't want to suffer." So he trades in his (chickpea-shaped) soul for what ends up being even more unbearable to him: hollowness. His acting suffers — terribly and, to be honest, hilariously — he wears bad shirts, and, after a few soulless days, he gets fitted with a temporary replacement in the form of an anonymous Russian poet's soul. The temporary fix is enough to get him through Vanya, but things take a turn for the worse when Paul learns that his soul has been smuggled to Russia, where soul-trafficking is all the rage.
Most of the early action takes place in the offices of the Soul Storage Company, which looks just as you'd imagine such a place: black and white this, stainless steel that. After Paul's soul is extracted, he's placed in a 2001-esque egg-shaped pod to have his emotional reactions tested. (This scene, too, is quite funny: he's shown everything from a scantily-clad woman to a live bunny; only the former evokes any response in him.) "Jesus Christ," Paul says, "how did we get here?" "Progress," Flinstein responds without a hint of irony in his voice.
The pristine minimalism of these scenes is offset by the always grey skies of Petersburg, where Giamatti walks around an ushanka — one of the movie's funniest moments. All of these scenes are shot fittingly: the visuals are muted throughout, complementing the story without distracting from it. Subtlety works well here.
There's one problem as we watch Paul wander through the snow-covered streets of Petersburg: we aren't made to care a great deal. Perhaps it's impossible to feel too strongly for someone whose body is inhabited by the soul of another? Cold Souls isn't otherwise flawed, exactly, but considering the inventive premise and Giamatti's immense talent — who wouldn't want to see Paul Giamatti wander around Russia looking for his soul? — it's hard not to think it couldn't have amounted to more than the sum of its parts.