Actor Paul Giamatti (Paul Giamatti) is struggling through rehearsals for Uncle Vanya on the New York stage. There's something about the performance he cannot grasp, and he's feeling bad about it, not to mention unprofessional as he lets down his cast and crew, but what can he possibly do? He goes home that evening, his wife Claire (Emily Watson) away for the time being, and starts moping around their apartment until he ends up reading a magazine. Inside there's an article about a newfangled treatment you can get: put your soul into storage and feel the difference.
Though first the soul must be extracted, as Paul discovers when he is interested enough to visit the offices of this company offering the service, and already we're plunged into a weird situation, yet gently as this was a leisurely paced, melancholy fantasy which trundled through what other films might have approached with whistles and bells and special effects. It was a comedy, but it had serious scenes as well, leaving a tone not unlike... well, there was no getting around it, Cold Souls was very like Being John Malkovich, resembling a more European take on its placing of a famous actor into a strange premise and spiralling off into philosophical directions.
But did that mean Cold Souls wasn't worth considering when it wore its chief influence on its sleeve quite so blatantly? Not necessarily, as for a start if you dismissed this you would be missing out on a very fine Paul Giamatti performance, and his followers would tell you that was nothing to turn your nose up at, especially when on the basis of this he could handle the drama just as well as he could the comedy. Some of this was very funny, and a lot of that was down to him; obviously he was taking direction from Sophie Barthes, whose first feature this was, but he added that sparkle a name actor can bring to a project which might well have been a lesser affair had he not signed on for it.
There was more to the story that Paul selling his soul, as you might expect although there was no intervention by demonic forces this action was detrimental to his peace of mind, as after he has been inside the machine, turning down the chance to wear goggles which will enable him to see within the soul itself, he is dismayed by the results. Not initially, but when he sees the object itself could easily be mistaken for a chickpea it's not quite what he expected, no matter that he has a sense of even-mindedness about his life that he didn't have before. What he doesn't have is his talent, as we realise in a hilarious scene where Paul rehearses and delivers a ludicrously ill-judged performance.
He realises this too, so returns to the clinic to get his soul back, but the lead doctor (David Strathairn) persuades him to try a poet's soul instead. This improves his acting, but has aching emotions and visions as side effects - no good, he must have his old self back. Which is where a promising movie takes a dip as it begins to shuffle through a plot concerned with the Russian mafia who according to this are trafficking in black market souls, and Paul's is one of those, ending up in the body of an aspiring Russian actress (Katheryn Winnick) reluctant to give it up. These musings over how everything can become a commodity able to be bought and sold, no matter how precious and personal they are - indeed, the more personal the better - are half-realised as the film moves towards its ambiguous ending, and you could throw in a metaphor for human trafficking as well, the way life has become cheap but perversely more expensive depending on where you were in the market making for interesting themes. It was just all that bit too dejected. Music by Dickon Hinchliffe.