The fallacy of the original idea is a nice trap thrown in by those rejecting material without needing to explain their disdain, often because the main reason for their dislike has to do with the confusion or an unwillingness to let themselves be surprised. Besides, the key to originality doesn’t have anything to do with the inkling that sparked the light bulb in your head, but how that idea develops from the first thought. *
Sophie Barthes’ Cold Souls could easily be accused of being a slim extension of Charlie Kaufman’s script for Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich, because her film also deals with a mid-level celebrity playing himself (Paul Giamatti vs. John Malkovich) engaging in a practice of spiritual control by either adding people into their systems to control their brain, or as in Cold Souls, where one’s soul is literally removed and placed in frozen storage. Both films present their idea as if it were only a slight stretch in reality as well as have their main characters yearn to have their original parts back, even if it only metaphysical. In the case of Being John Malkovich the satirical hooks it hangs on deal with the human way of dealing with boredom, and how to escape it vicariously through another being and the literalization of the notion of actors being empty. Cold Souls also literalizes how hollow and empty an actor can be (Giamatti’s soul is the size of a chickpea), but mostly how clueless he can be since he’s been shielded by fame.
If anything, Cold Souls is a mellower and less antic version of Being John Malkovich. Giamatti isn’t after the secrets of the soul; he just wants to perform Uncle Vanya on stage without his personal distractions and feelings getting in the way. If an actor like Robert De Niro can be credited with “hollowing himself out” for a role like Taxi Driver, where only the character exists, Barthes’ concept is to look at that idea as if hollowing yourself out would be actually possible. Barthes has Giamatti, on the advice of his agent and an article in The New Yorker visit a sleazy, passive aggressive salesman, played by a perfectly cast David Straitharn, who promises that the solution to your problems is just a phony MRI away. The notion that an actor, or for that matter, an upper class Park Avenue resident, would believe anything, as long as it was printed in The New Yorker, is a funny one. As is the way Strathairn plays into that elitist stereotype (“If you want to avoid sales tax, we can ship your soul to New Jersey”). Barthes, like Kaufman, then begins to explore how life might be different if her concept were true — Russian soul trafficking, soul renting, soul envy, etc. — while most importantly giving us a chance to understand her believably narcissistic characters by giving them an entire act of the film to breathe before getting to her central gimmick.
Barthes isn’t as creative as Kaufman was, but she doesn’t overstuff Cold Souls either, and so the tone is more contemplative than nervous. The calm feeling is the key to letting us sympathize with Giamatti for being so arrogant as to think he should be able to purchase perfection, as opposed to embracing his flaws. While the third act of Cold Souls veers into the territory that Kaufman so deftly satirized in Adaptation, with espionage and illegal activities taking over the movie on its way to a generic conclusion, one doesn’t leave Cold Souls feeling overwhelmed and confused (which could be said for Being John Malkovich), and Giamatti’s sad-sack droopy face is nearly impossible to stay angry at. Though financial success is highly unlikely for Cold Souls, you wonder what Barthes would do with a sequel, maybe having various celebrities show up to have their souls removed. What if novelist Bret Easton Ellis (The Informers, American Psycho, The Rules of Attraction) went through the procedure? When nothing came out, would he ask for a refund?
* Take, for example, two different mindless action movies made 10 years apart with remarkably similar stories but slightly different approaches to the material. In 1996, third-tier, direct-to-video martial artist Gary Daniels starred in Rage about an ordinary man (who kicks people in the face a lot) who, after being falsely imprisoned by dastardly government agents is injected with an experimental drug that turns him into a “one-man army.” Of course he escapes containment, after killing a slew of security guards, and spends the rest of the movie running away from the corrupt agents who framed him.
Rage is a very silly movie, with stunts that push credibility quite a bit, but the movie never goes into total outrageousness. This can’t be said for the veritable remake, 2006’s Crank, which takes Rage’s insano-drug idea and embraces the idea that ridiculous and over-the-top is where you should start, not what you should occasionally reach for. Nothing in Rage ever reaches the heights of a scene very early in Crank, where the hero played by Jason Statham, in order to keep his adrenaline flowing, snorts cocaine off a piss-covered men’s room floor or later on, when he has sex with his girlfriend in the middle of the streets of Chinatown.