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Cold Souls (PG-13)

Emily Watson as Claire and Paul Giamatti as himself. Photo: Samuel Goldwyn Films.
Emily Watson as Claire and Paul Giamatti as himself. Photo: Samuel Goldwyn Films.

By Colin Covert, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

The soul: Albatross or asset? Do soulless people, unhindered by conscience, have a huge advantage in life? They calculate their options without sentiment and act decisively to advance their objectives. But could a person who is nagged by inner voices become like them? Should he?

That’s the quandary facing Paul Giamatti (played by Paul Giamatti) in the futuristic seriocomedy Cold Souls. Prickly, grumpy, prone to sulk over life’s trivialities, Paul has a whole world of passions battling inside him. That’s his gift as an actor, but it makes for an anxious daily life.

While rehearsing for a New York production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, Paul feels overwhelmed by the character’s melancholy. When he learns of a new high-tech procedure to remove souls, he decides to unburden himself. He visits the sleek, high-tech offices of Soul Storage where Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn) is all glib reassurance. “When you’ve gotten rid of the soul,” the doctor purrs, “everything makes so much more sense.”

Giamatti is crestfallen to discover that his immortal essence resembles a chickpea. Flintstein thinks of more practical matters. He informs Paul that he can avoid sales tax by storing his soul in New Jersey.

In her feature debut, writer/director Sophie Barthes handles weighty issues with a light touch. Her through-the-looking-glass fantasy is silliness with a hint of transcendence. It turns the eternal spirit-body problem into a springboard for sly jokes and trippy philosophy. And Giamatti gets to play the role of a lifetime: Himself with the “Giamatti-ness” removed.

As promised, Paul feels lighter and less stressed without his existential baggage. But that is not the ideal mindset to play a glum Russian. He bounds through his next rehearsal of Vanya as if he were performing a dinner-theater sex farce.

Things go poorly at home. Paul’s wife (Emily Watson) can’t relate to her newly soulless mate. Paul visits Dr. Flintstein to re-implant his soul, but the doctor warns, “you’ll feel the unbearable weight again.” So Paul leases one belonging to a Russian poet, which should be ideal but isn’t.

Peppered with ingenious twists of imagination, Cold Souls walks a tightrope between intellectual slapstick and edgy social commentary. Virtuoso cinematographer Andrij Parekh gives the film an elegant, uneasy Kubrickian look that complements the action to perfection. Cast: Paul Giamatti, David Strathairn, Emily Watson.

Director/screenwriter: Sophie Barthes.

Producers: Daniel Carey, Elizabeth Giamatti, Paul S. Mezey, Andrij Parekh, Jeremy Kipp Walker.

A Samuel Goldwyn release. Running time: 101 minutes. Nudity and brief strong language. Playing in Miami-Dade only: South Beach, Intracoastal.