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There’s an episode of The Simpsons in which Bart sells his soul to his best friend for five bucks. Not really believing there is such a thing, he scribbles “Bart Simpson’s Soul” on one piece of paper and exchanges it for what he regards as a more valuable one. But soon he notices little differences in his life and starts to freak out, hunting that notebook scrap over several hours and several miles.
Cold Souls offers pretty much the same story, except here it’s an actor who chucks his inner being—and eventually feels empty and frantic without it. One imagines that writer-director Sophie Barthes intended her debut to be an earnest, Charlie Kaufman–esque examination of the human condition, not reminiscent of a lightly-lessoned subplot in an animated sitcom. But the result is still more ridiculous than thought-provoking.
Paul Giamatti stars as Paul Giamatti, which makes the film irritating from the start. He’s rehearsing for a stage production of Uncle Vanya and feels depressed and overwhelmed, unable to separate his own life from his character’s. His agent points him toward a New York City soul-extraction company—“Soul Storage” is even a category in the Yellow Pages—and Paul makes an appointment with Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn), who will remove and store his soul for a small fee. The good doc even advises that it can be shipped to New Jersey “to avoid sales tax.” (That’s one of the movie’s few not-very-amusing attempts at levity; another is that Paul’s soul looks like a chickpea.)
Once Paul is spirit-free, he turns into a terrible actor and his wife (Emily Watson) tells him that he feels different, kind of “scaly.” He airs his concerns to Flintstein, but honestly answers “no” when the doctor asks, “Have you had one dark thought in the past week?” Still, Paul wants to be his old miserable self again, at which point the script delves further into a subplot involving a heretofore mysterious Russian woman (Dina Korzun), an overseas black market, and, yep, soul trafficking.
Cold Souls is thin in addition to being silly. Giamatti, the character, pre- and post-soul-removal may be amusing, and Giamatti, the real actor, tries to infuse the role with his specialty: nuanced angst. There’s also a germ of an interesting notion here, when Flinstein compares the soul to an unnecessary drag on one’s potential: “Some people never question their self-imposed limitations,” he says. But Barthes never develops this idea, instead focusing on Giamatti’s quest to get his chickpea back as well as the consequences of both “borrowing” and transporting souls. The apparent message? Stick with the one what brung ya. The unfortunate result? A film that’s a snooze.