It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Would an actor sell his own soul for a great performance? No, but he might pawn it. Paul Giamatti is struggling through rehearsals for Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” and finds the role is haunting every aspect of his life. His soul is weighed down, it tortures him, it makes his wife miserable. He sees an article in the New Yorker about a new trend: People are having their souls extracted for a time, to lighten the burden.
The man who performs this service is Dr. Flintstein, whose Soul Storage service will remove the soul (or 95 percent of it, anyway) and hold it in cold storage. As played by a droll David Strathairn, whose own soul seems in storage for this character, Flintstein makes his service sound perfectly routine. He’s the type of medical professional who focuses on the procedure and not the patient. Giamatti, playing an actor named after himself, has some questions, as would we all, but he signs up.
“Cold Souls” is a demonstration of the principle that it is always wise to seek a second opinion. The movie is a first feature written and directed by Sophie Barthes, whose previous film was a short about a middle-aged condom tester who considers buying a box labeled “Happiness” at the drugstore. Clearly this is a filmmaker who would enjoy having dinner with Charlie Kaufman. Perhaps inspired by Kaufman’s screenplay for “Being John Malkovich,” she also credits Dead Souls, the novel by Gogol about a Russian landowner who buys up the souls of his serfs.
Gogol was writing satire, and so is Barthes. We hope that medical intervention can help us do what we cannot do on our own: Focus better, look younger, lose weight, cheer up, be smarter. If only it were as simple as taking a pill. Or, in Giamatti’s case, lying on his back to be inserted into a machine looking uncannily like a pregnant MRI scanner.