Proving not only that shes seen Being John Malkovich but also that she liked it very, very much, writer-director Sophie Barthes debut feature attempts to ape Charlie Kaufmans trademarked metaphysical whimsy with leaden, deadening results. Much like Zach Helms 2006 fiasco, Stranger Than Fiction, Cold Souls proves that Kaufmans voice is not easily mimicked.

The invaluable Paul Giamatti stars, playing himself for no discernable reason. Struggling his way through a faltering Broadway production of Uncle Vanya, Giamatti happens upon a New Yorker article about a fledgling pseudo-scientific corporation that promises to remove your soul and keep it in cold storage so youll no longer have to worry about all those pesky emotions. Its an offer the terminally depressed Giamatti cant refuse, despite CEO David Strathairns lame jokes about New Jersey. (Barthes still seems to be suffering from the antiquated comic delusion popularized in the 1980s that merely mentioning the Garden State is hilarious.)

Hopes initially sour when the suddenly soulless Giamatti hams his way through Chekhov with Shatnerian horndog swagger, but Barthes tosses aside such ripe comedic conceits in favor of a dull, plodding thriller about Russian gangsters. Our poor protagonists soul is mislabeled as Al Pacinos and smuggled onto the black market, where its sold to a soap opera actress in St. Petersburg.

There are a ton of possible metaphors bubbling under the text, and with all the soul-shuffling one wonders if the film might be attempting to address the toll taken on actors by constantly switching personas and living alternate lives for the sake of their characters. A burnt out soul-mule (Dina Korzun) bleeds from the nose and suffers flashbacks to lives she never lived, but like most of Barthes ideas, this one remains maddeningly undeveloped.

Instead, Cold Souls narrows its focus to the dreary nuts and bolts of its absurd central conceit, leading to lots of less-than-suspenseful sequences during which Giamatti and Korzun negotiate with bad guys and hijack klutzy science-fiction machinery, as Barthes script manufactures drama by arbitrarily throwing up logistical obstacles and then knocking them down just as easily.

Its a dreary-looking, glacially paced collection of missed opportunities. Charlie Kaufman need not lose any sleep over it. D+


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