By Sean Patrick Kernan
As I watched the angst existential flick “Cold Souls,” a movie about an actor for whom the weight of his soul is so heavy he agrees to have it removed and placed in storage, I could not keep my pop culture soaked brain from flashing to the brilliant episode of “The Simpsons” in which Bart sold his soul to Millhouse for $5 dollars and then suffered an existential crisis.
In a mere 22 minutes “The Simpsons” manages to do what “Cold Souls” fails in more than 100 minutes, be funny about something as complex and intellectual as the existence of the soul. “Cold Souls” knows how to refer to the complexity of other works on the weight of the soul but not so clever of its own accord.
Paul Giamatti plays an alternative universe version of actor Paul Giamatti in “Cold Souls.” This version of Paul lives in New York, is married to Claire (Emily Watson) and is currently acting in a production of Chekhov's “Uncle Vanya” (note the name check of Chekhov). The role of Uncle Vanya has become a heavy burden for Paul, so heavy that it has soaked into his real life.
Weighed down by Vanya, Paul finds possible solace in an article in “The New Yorker” about a service that can remove your soul. Though some might assume this was a bit of literary whimsy, we quickly find that indeed this business does exist, on Roosevelt Island of all places, and that it's in the phonebook.
Paul investigates and after a brief, rather bizarre conversation with Dr. Flintstein (David Straithairn) Paul is being inserted into a machine and his surprisingly chickpea sized soul is extracted for storage. Returning to his life he finds he stinks as an actor with no soul likely would (hello Freddie Prinze Jr.) and is soon begging for his soul back.
What happens next I leave you to discover. Or not, I am not recommending “Cold Souls.” Where most critics have loved “Cold Souls,” 80% positive on Rottentomatoes.com, I was not blown away by the film’s Meta humor or simpleminded name checking of people and places associated with soul crushing pain.
“Cold Souls” is intellectualism for the poser intellect. If you are aware that Russia in winter is often associated with soul crushing oppression or that Chekhov is weighted with existential angst then you are just the right audience to find the posing of “Cold Souls” deep.
Not to critique my fellow critics but “Cold Souls” is just the kind of imitation of clever that we like to praise beyond it's worth. “Cold Souls” allows critics to show off that Philosophy Minor from college that we all wished was our major while keeping things on a level simple enough for those of a more average intelligence. It's the height of pretension without all of the hoity toity-ness of actually having to think.
“The Simpsons” episode was straightforward about being simple satire, the reference to Neruda being a brilliant shout out and not a statement of genius from the writers. “Cold Souls” wants to be considered brilliant by association. That feeling extends right down to the casting of Paul Giamatti who lends his preternaturally tortured mug along with his name to the proceedings.
Giamatti brings credible angst and intellect to “Cold Souls” but he is trapped in writer-director Sophie Barthes attempt at high minded populism, a sort of pop philosophy, easy to follow for those who didn't spend their time with the works of Emmanuel Kant or Thomas Hillman. Anyone with a minor in pop culture can follow “Cold Souls” and while that accessibility isn't necessarily a bad thing it is highly pretentious and more than a little irritating.
“Cold Souls” pretends toward existentialism while keeping things simple enough for the rabble to follow. Better works ask the audience to come up to their level. When “The Simpsons” referenced Pablo Neruda millions of Americans ran to their computers to check it out. “Cold Souls” sticks with the relatively well known marks of the weighted soul and fails to offer little more than the reference.
Sean Patrick Kernan is a film critic. Check him out at: http://www.myspace.com/number1ramjamfan. Email Sean at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Sean Patrick Kernan