ND/NF: Paul Giamatti in Vanya on 42nd Street…and also in Russia for some reason

cold

You know a film is tackling the existential ennui of creative-types when the first moment of excitement comes from an issue of The New Yorker.

But that’s what Cold Souls, Sophie Barthes’s feature debut, looks at, and it’s blessed to have such a good subject.

Paul Giamatti plays, well, a slightly exaggerated version of Paul Giamatti–I’m pretty sure he was never as suave as in an imaginary clip of his work within the film where he says “Let’s go make love”–who is trying to find his character in a performance of Uncle Vanya. This is of course, brilliant, since anyone knowing the Chekov play and the actor would know he’s perfect for the part. Yet the dilemma is that in the film Giamatti is unwilling to suffer to find his character: the superfluous man.

Thus, we are taken on an absurdist journey of soul-swapping, Russian “mules”, chickpeas and an impeccably coiffed David Strathairn. It’s a journey that seems to echo Dante or Sartre with a pinch of the internationalist films of Olivier Assayas; the search for one’s own soul, a commodity on the market between countries. And while this sounds interesting, one can’t help but wonder at the number of allusions we’re supposed to take and accept; the film sometimes seems like a class in contemporary western philosophy.

Yet what anchors Cold Souls to a reachable humanist point is Giamatti himself, a wonderful and underused actor. He is so much a schlub, a wonk, a beardo, a sufferer that it is endlessly fascinating just to get caught up looking in his face, as the film does in many expressive shots, as we search his eyes for the remnant of a soul.

In the end, Cold Souls is a smart, slight film. That it demands a high degree of literacy from its audience is refreshing after the wave of mall-cop/Tyler Perry movies offered to us as insults to our intelligence otherwise.

-Nicholas Feitel, ND/NF New Voice

Buy tickets to Cold Souls: Fri Mar 27: 9 (MoMA) and Sun Mar 29: 5 (FSLC)

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