THE LAZY THING to do would be to compare Cold Souls to Being John Malkovich. Such a comparison isn't inaccurate—both films are examples of those too-rare science-fiction tales bereft of spaceships and explosions, and both feature actors who play characters who share their names and occupations (in Malkovich, it's... well, Malkovich, and in Cold Souls, it's Paul Giamatti). But for all its obviousness, such a comparison sells Cold Souls short—it's just too simple, dammit.
I'm not exactly sure how to characterize Cold Souls—maybe as an existential dark comedy that deals with the black market of soul trafficking?—but I do know it does writer/director Sophie Barthes' film a disservice to compare it to just about anything else. Not to slight Malkovich (or another film I suspect will be frequently mentioned alongside Cold Souls, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), but Cold Souls is a whole different deal: True, it's another darkly funny sci-fi film that stars neither Vulcans nor Transformers, but it's also a film that, by the time it ends, is original and smart enough to stand on its own.
Giamatti plays Paul Giamatti, a schlubby, semi-famous New York actor stuck in rehearsals for a stage production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. Drained and frustrated, he reads a New Yorker article about a "soul storage" business on Roosevelt Island; when he visits, he finds a sterile facility run by Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn), who promises to extract Giamatti's soul, relieving him of his weariness. "Don't worry," Flintstein says. "Just think of it as... well, as another one of your organs, like your heart. Or your liver. Or your pancreas."
Declining to run his sketchy decision past his wife, Claire (Emily Watson), Giamatti soon finds himself soulless—once extracted, the thing's disappointingly small, and he rattles it around in a glass tube before sticking it in a freezer. With that, Giamatti finds himself in a world where "mules" are implanted with contraband souls before sneaking through customs, where renting the soul of a Russian poet seems like a good idea, and where he's forced to beg for what used to be his. "Listen, I don't even have a sexy soul!" Giamatti pleads to his soul's new owner. "It's all dark and twisted!"
One could describe Cold Souls that way too, but the film never loses its sneaky, melancholy sense of humor. Even as things grow desperately surreal, Cold Souls keeps its character-driven focus, and it never stops being witty and intriguing. Predictably enough, Giamatti is great, anchoring the film with his familiar crabby charm, and when the film's nuanced side characters pop in—Claire, Flintstein, a jaded soul mule named Nina (Dina Korzun), a crappy soap opera actress (Katheryn Winnick)—the entire cast makes Cold Souls' winking, metaphysical premise unexpectedly convincing and engaging. Barthes—aided by cool, measured cinematography from Andrij Parekh—has crafted a film that does what the best science fiction should: It reminds the viewer of much, but dwells on little; it convinces even as it astounds; it knows its genre, but never gets mired in it. Most importantly—and despite any lazy comparisons you might hear—it's a film that isn't quite like anything you've seen before.