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Originally published August 20, 2009 at 3:00 PM | Page modified August 20, 2009 at 5:46 PM

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Movie review

'Cold Souls': Paul Giamatti puts comedic face on dark, sci-fi tale

"Cold Souls" — a winning, dreamlike comedy directed by Sophie Barthes — stars Paul Giamatti playing himself, more or less, as an actor who has his soul removed and then ends up chasing after it on the black market.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

"Cold Souls," with Paul Giamatti, Emily Watson, Michael Tucker, Dina Korzun, David Strathairn. Written and directed by Sophie Barthes. 90 minutes. Rated PG-13 for nudity and brief strong language. Guild 45th, Uptown; see page 17.

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If you could visualize your soul, would you prefer it look like a glowing orb or a nubby little chickpea?

Paul (Paul Giamatti) doesn't have any choice in the matter in writer-director Sophie Barthes' surreal comedy "Cold Souls." When he elects to have his soul mechanically extracted in a moment of desperation, he has to face an awful truth: His life force is kind of ugly, rattling around in a glass cylinder like an old tooth.

Inspired by one of Barthes' dreams, "Cold Souls" has the kind of twisted but clever self-awareness of "Being John Malkovich." In fact, it shares a similar in-joke to that Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman film: Giamatti actually plays some version of himself in "Cold Souls," more or less the well-known, Oscar-nominated actor we all know. But when we meet him, he's struggling with rehearsing the title role in a stage production of "Uncle Vanya."

Concerned his own personality is in the way of Vanya's character, Paul seeks out the services of a company that can pull the souls right out of people and store them away for a fee. It's a dark enterprise, indeed, but Barthes goes for a comic counterpoint by casting David Strathairn, at his most charming, as the outfit's sunny frontman.

From there, things get very funny in "Cold Souls," and then abruptly take a turn toward a darkening, sci-fi fable. Watching a soulless Giamatti play Vanya — practically groping the actress portraying Yelena — deserves to be a highlight of this film year. Memorable, too, is Paul's confession to his baffled wife (Emily Watson) that he had the procedure done.

But when "Cold Souls" introduces the notion of an international underground in soul trafficking, its mood grows more bleak. Cinematographer Andrij Parekh (Barthes' husband) expertly captures and defines the many tonal shifts in this film with a broad palette, doing exquisite work, especially, in Russia's wintry St. Petersburg.

Unlike Malkovich's eponymous role in the Jonze movie, there is a smart, inverse logic to watching a popular performer like Giamatti gradually stripped of so much that is familiar. Chasing around St. Petersburg, trying in vain to reacquire his soul off the black market, Giamatti looks less and less like a star and more like an everyman bewildered by yet another disturbing, life-cheapening wrinkle in the modern world.

Tom Keogh:

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