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COLD SOULS
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The shadow of “Being John Malkovich” looms heavily over the new metaphysical comic drama, “Cold Souls.”

Inventive and offbeat, this odd little movie plays like a European art flick that somehow got hijacked and subverted by a Hollywood dropout.

Paul Giamatti (“Duplicity”) plays actor Paul Giamatti, a popular film star who is having a bit of trouble in rehearsals for a Broadway production of Chekov’s “Uncle Vanya.” The part is weighing on him so heavily that he can’t seem to be able to cope.

While reading a copy of “The New Yorker,” Paul notices an article about a new medical service that can remove and store one’s soul. Naturally, his agent (they’re soul-less anyway, right?) encourages him to give it a try. Arguably, removing it allows one to think and function with greater clarity.

Paul visits a clinic run by Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn from “Good Night and Good Luck”) who convinces the reluctant actor to give it a try. What’s the harm, right? After all, they’ll store it and he can always get it back later.

Naturally, once his soul is removed he becomes a very bad actor, lacking the requisite empathy. Since there’s a thriving black market for Russian souls, Paul decides to replace his soul with that of a Russian poet. Bingo!

But, naturally, there are complications. Paul has lost his sense of self and his relationship with his wife Claire (Emily Watson from “The Watershorse”) has suffered. Things get tricky when he decides to get his soul back.

A Russian ‘mule’ named Nina (Russian actress Dina Korzun) has stolen Paul’s soul to give to an actress in St. Petersburg. But Nina still carries around the residue of the souls she’s smuggled, including some of Paul’s. She decides to help him in his quest to retrieve his soul from the actress’ dangerous mobster husband.

Whew.

First time filmmaker Sophie Barthes shows a lot of promise, creating a bleak comedy that reflects a heavy Russian atmosphere. It plays like something Chekov might have made if he were a contemporary filmmaker trying to emulate Spike Jones.

“Being John Malkovich” and “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” are just a couple of movies that “Cold Souls” brings to mind. Problem is, it lacks the dreamlike playfulness that made those movies so memorable.

But “Cold Souls” works as well as it does because of the excellent Giamatti. He gives a splendidly nuanced performance that makes this bizarre enterprise actually seem feasible. (PG-13) Rating: ***

* Avoid at all costs
** Only if you're bored
*** Good movie
**** Well worth your time
***** Be sure to see it

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