“Damn you Charlie Kaufman.” Not my words. Never. But surely the words of many an independent screenwriter struggling to get their unique vision to the screen. How can Kaufman write such films that are both personal and universal, uncompromising in their singular vision, dealing in lunacy but grounded in truth? He has written at least two of the greatest films of all time (I would personally argue four, but I’m willing to limit the hyperbole here). So then, how must it feel for any other filmmakers with a kooky script that could only be described as Kaufman-esque? Do they celebrate the fact that studios and distributors are eagerly looking for the next CK, eager to purchase any product that might fit His mould? Or do they curse the fact that it will inevitably be compared to two (or – as I said – four) of the greatest pictures ever made? Enter Sophie Barthes’ Cold Souls, a psycho-satire about soul-removal surgery that seems to crib liberally from Kaufman’s back catalogue. How does it fare? Well…
Paul Giamatti stars as a fictionalised version of himself (cue Kaufman comparison #1). He’s working on a production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, but finds himself unable to evoke the right mix of comedy and tragedy in his performance. Spurred on by friends to seek alternative (and I mean alternative) solutions to his indefinable ailment, he seeks out a company that specialises in the clinical removal of one’s soul (cue Kaufman comparison #2). Charismatic Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn) convinces Paul to put his soul on ice, temporarily, until he can feel unburdened by … himself, I guess. But having no soul isn’t exactly a better substitute than being weighed down by one; Paul can no longer act, make love or feel anything remotely human. Gee, who’da thunk it?! Regretting his decision, he demands the procedure be reversed (cue Kaufman comparison #3).
The above events roughly translate to the film’s first 25 minutes. Despite its inherent similarity to Kaufman’s work – which I’ve annoyingly outlined for reader’s ease – it would translate into a charming short film. The problem however, is that there is another pesky hour and twenty minutes that we have to deal with. A subplot emerges outlining the world of underground Russian soul trafficking, in which Paul’s soul gets tangled up. He heads to St. Petersburg, where he’s aided by a soul-mule named Nina (Dina Korzun) to help locate his little chickpea shaped sense-of-existence. I’m not particularly sure what the meaning of this extended metaphor is supposed to be, beyond: “Don’t trade your soul, or at least, not with the Russians.” The picture’s meandering second half never recovers, and instead only highlights the film’s lack of imagination. Cold Souls never exceeds it’s cute, but derivative and ultimately meaningless central concept.
So if Cold Souls never grows beyond high-concept psycho-satire, have we any choice but to compare it to Kaufman’s work? Consider Being John Malkovich, in which a portal is discovered that allows people to spend 10 minutes looking through the eyes of the eponymous character actor. Observe Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in which a company offers heart-broken individuals the opportunity to erase people from their memory. Or reflect on Synecdoche, New York (and believe me, I have), in which a playwright struggles to define his identity, and decides to hire actors to portray himself, his wives and everyone else in the world in a sprawling, endless play. Even those who have seen none of these pictures could identify the links. Paul Giamatti even shares the same ‘that-guy’ persona in popular culture as John Malkovich, and the score seems to deliberately mug Jon Brion’s now iconic tinkly, haunting, flower-pop soundtracks (as featured in many of – you guessed it – Charlie Kaufman’s films). The picture’s conclusion literally consists of a sequence in which Giamatti traverses the confines of his own soul, evoking the classic scene from BJM in which Cameron Diaz and Catherine Keener race through Malkovich’s mind.
The comparisons between Cold Souls and Kaufman’s work are so obvious and lazy that I’m almost ashamed to note them. But am I the lazy one here, or is it the film? Should I be forced to think of a better angle to analyse the picture when it scarcely seeks to be considered as anything but a Kaufman-rip-off. Perhaps screenwriter/director Sophie Barthes dreamt-up this story in the late-1980s; maybe she even shared the idea with Kaufman at a pro-Dukakis rally, or perhaps at the premiere of Punchline (yes, I just Googled “Events of 1988” – give me a break, I was less than a year old at the time). Regardless whose idea came first, Barthes’ execution is flat, philosophically empty and mostly boring.
But you can’t call it soulless (no, not even when it’s a zinger of a pun to finish the review with). Barthes clearly has affection for Giamatti and he reciprocates with a rich and wholehearted – if not exactly bold – performance. Ultimately, the problem lies not in the direct comparisons to Kaufman’s work – although that does become a problem, even if it’s somewhat self-imposed by this reviewer. It’s the unexplored central concept. The weight of a soul is never defined, or at least, is poorly defined. Why do people covet it? Why can you not live without it? Why is someone only whole when they have their own? We may not know these answers in real life, but what is art if not an ongoing attempt to figure out our own existence. Perhaps that’s the real difference between Barthes and Kaufman’s work. She’s struggling to explain the soul, while he concerns himself with matters of the heart.
Cold Souls arrives on DVD April 7th.