Film review by: Witney Seibold
The premise sounds like something Charlie Kaufman would have written. Paul Giamatti, playing himself, has found that he cannot deal with the weight of his latest play, in this case a revival of “Uncle Vanya.” He reads of a business in New York (run by David Strathairn, not playing himself) that can extract his soul with a large CAT-scan-like machine, and keep it in storage for as long as he needs, helping him to perform his character all the better.
The procedure leaves him feeling “light” but “empty.” He seems to lose his ability to sympathize, live with passion, or make love to his wife (Emily Watson). Eventually he decides to lease another soul (of a Russian poet), and manages to perform his part well. When he returns to claim his own soul, we find that it’s been stolen by a Russian soul trafficker (a very good Dina Korzun), who has been buying souls in Russia and smuggling them into America as a “soul mule.” Giamatti must go to Russia to find his soul and have it reinserted.
This all makes for an amusing meta-physical comedy, and it’s very well made by writer-director Sophie Barthes. It’s great to see Giamatti in most anything, and I like the way he handled playing various versions of himself. I also was amusied by the film’s conceit that Giamatti has a reputation as a grand, sweeping romantic leading man, even though he’s made his reputation by playing cads and schlumps; we get to see a clip of an imaginary Giamatti film in which he gets to say “Let’s go somewhere and make love.” It was a line that brought the house down.
The pacing and editing was first rate, and the entire film managed to be sedate and grey, rather than forcefully quirky, or artificially strange; Barthe clearly has a strong interest in the material.
The problems arise when we begin to see that no actual comment is being made on the soul. We get clever symbols (Giamatti’s soul looks like a chickpea, everyone’s soul looks different, we hear words like “light” and “heavy” around every corner), but no actual philosophical or theological discussion. It’s funny to think of the soul in such concrete terms, but no one bothers to stop and ask about the nature or function of the soul. It’s a clever comedy that could have been told around any major organ.
Also, it was unclear why Giamatti plays himself. The lead character needed to be an actor, but why have an actor play himself? Why not hire Giamatti to play an imaginary actor? I think the self-reference was only included to remind us of Charlie Kaufman’s “Being John Malkovich,” and be content to leave us with that connection to a better film.
“Could Souls” is amusing, but not as deep as is purports to be.