‘Cold Souls’

Some dreams are like movies. And some movies are like dreams.

"Cold Souls," for example.

It started not only as a dream but in a dream, and it often plays like one — sometimes disjointed and illogical, sometimes hauntingly surrealistic.

And sometimes quite funny.

The latter makes perfect sense, considering that writer-director Sophie Barthes, making her feature debut, was inspired by a dream she had after watching Woody Allen’s futuristic 1973 comedy "Sleeper."

Not that "Sleeper" put her to sleep; it’s too uproarious for that.

But "Cold Souls" reflects the kind of whimsical soul-searching that Allen has made a personal trademark.

Woody’s nowhere to be found, of course, but "Cold Souls" does have a world-class clown around: Paul Giamatti.

What’s more, he’s playing the role he was born to play: Paul Giamatti, actor.

As "Cold Souls" begins, Giamatti’s rehearsing Anton Chekhov’s "Uncle Vanya." Naturally, he’s playing the title role — which means he’s decrying the vast nothingness of his life and yearning for a different way to live what’s left of it.

Somehow, however, Giamatti’s not connecting with the role. At least not according to his director (Michael Tucker), who reminds the actor that it’s not a tragedy. (Assuming you’re not Uncle Vanya.)

But Giamatti’s doing enough soul-searching (for both himself and Vanya) to realize that something needs to change.

Maybe even himself.

Lucky for him that his agent refers him to a New Yorker article about an outfit called Soul Storage, which extracts its patrons’ souls and preserves them in glass jars stored in climate-controlled lockers. (At least that’s what happens at the New York headquarters; who knows what goes on in the New Jersey warehouse.)

For a soul as troubled as Giamatti, that sounds like a plan. Especially when Soul Storage’s dapper proprietor, Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn, a deadpan delight), explains that a soulless life is so much more logical and so much less complicated.

That’s all true, as Giamatti discovers once his soul has been extracted and stored. Yet, somehow, his uncomplicated life suddenly seems strangely empty.

He may look the same, sound the same, but as his wife Claire (Emily Watson, on target as always) notices, his scent is different. His skin feels dry, even scaly. And whatever ineffable ingredient made him — well, him — seems to have vanished.

Getting his soul back, however, turns out to be far more complicated than just another visit to Dr. Flintstein.

That’s because someone else has stolen his soul: Nina (the haunted, haunting Dina Korzun), who specializes in transporting black-market souls between Russia and the United States.

Oh, it’s not for herself, naturally. If anything, she’s got too much soul, having retained traces of every one she’s smuggled into the United States.

Giamatti’s soul is meant for her boss’s wife, a Russian soap opera star (sultry Katheryn Winnick) who requested Al Pacino’s soul — but got Giamatti’s instead. (Oops.)

Suddenly, Giamatti’s soul has become a metaphysical MacGuffin, to borrow Alfred Hitchcock’s term for "whatever it is the spies are after" — and Giamatti and Nina are off to St. Petersburg to reclaim it.

It’s an offbeat adventure, to be sure, but Barthes and her able protagonist manage to keep it from flying off the rails.

Occasionally, "Cold Souls" plays like a low-rent version of the mind-bending, Charlie Kaufman-scripted "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," which also featured a clinical remedy for an anything-but-clinical problem.

Yet Barthes has her own brand of speculative surrealism, one marked by a restrained, almost austere approach that makes even her wildest flights of fancy seem almost reasonable.

She’s also got a sharp, sly eye for visual humor — as when Giamatti gazes at his extracted soul and realizes that, far from the magnificent mass he’s imagined, it looks exactly like a garbanzo bean.

There’s nothing fanciful, of course, about a troubled soul — or a character’s anxious desire to put it at rest, regardless of the extreme measures he must take to do so.

Making that character an actor gives "Cold Souls" an intriguing undercurrent, emphasizing how all of us play roles — whether typecast or playing against type — and wonder what, and how, we might do if we ever got the role of a lifetime. (And had enough lifetime left to do something with the part — which, come to think of it, is precisely Uncle Vanya’s problem.)

Giamatti already has had several roles of a lifetime, from his Emmy-winning turn as John Adams to his big-screen triumphs as the hapless, but far from heartless, screw-ups of "Sideways" and "American Splendor."

In "Cold Souls," his rumpled, neurotic Everyman presence proves perfect casting, giving the movie a solid, quietly sardonic base from which to launch its various flights of fancy. And for us to ponder the strange ways in which our burdens can weigh us down and lift us up — often at the same time.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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