is the shape and size of a human soul? Does it look like a chickpea? A
gumdrop? A pet rock? And if you could somehow extract your soul from
your body, what would be left? Would you still be you? These are among
the concerns taken up by writer-director Sophie Barthes' Cold Souls,
an amusing divertissement that has injected some welcome levity into a
Sundance dramatic competition dominated by visions of poverty, incest,
domestic violence, dead children, bloody border crossings and the
shadow of 9/11.
Barthes' film, which could alternately be called Being Paul Giamatti, features the hangdog American Splendor
star as himself, in a gently existential comedy about the little-known
but highly lucrative world of international soul trafficking. During
the rehearsals for a stage production of Uncle Vanya, Giamatti
begins to feel weighed down by Chekhov's lovelorn, chronically
dissatisfied protagonist, finding himself unable to slip out of
character when he goes home at night. At the suggestion of his agent,
the actor puts his soul on deposit at a Roosevelt Island "soul storage
facility" run by a kooky David Strathairn (not playing himself), then
later opts for a soul transplant courtesy of a black market of
Russian-harvested souls ferried to the U.S. in the bellies of human
mules (one of whom is played by the excellent Russian actress Dina
Korzun, last seen at Sundance as the wife of Rip Torn in Forty Shades of Blue).
Maria Vasilyevna Voinitskaya Full of Grace? Not exactly. Like a lot of Sundance entries past and present, Cold Souls
begins with a blast of self-assured ingenuity that it doesn't quite
sustain over the course of the entire feature. (I for one longed to see
more of the havoc all Giamatti's soul-swapping wreaks on his marriage
to an underused Emily Watson.) But Barthes' low-fi futurism, generous
good humor and respect for the audience's literacy are easy to admire,
and make Cold Souls vastly preferable to this year's other competition film about people searching for the answers to life's big questions.
In writer-director John Hindman's Arlen Faber, Jeff Daniels plays to the back row as a reclusive Philadelphia author who 20 years ago published a book, Me and God,
that came to define spirituality for an entire generation. Now, as
reclusive authors are wont to do in Sundance movies, Faber is slowly
lured out of his shell by an aggressively annoying cast of supporting
characters that includes an overbearing, overcaffeinated single mother
(Lauren Graham) and a self-pitying alcoholic bookseller (Lou Taylor
Pucci). "Hell is other people," Faber says at one point, quoting
Sartre; but unlike the self-absorbed, misanthropic writer Daniels so
effortlessly brought to life in The Squid and the Whale, this one never convinces as anything but the destined-to-be-lovable central figure in a wide-screen sit-com.
An existential quandary of a different sort drives director Nicholas Jasenovec's Paper Heart, a hydra-headed narrative/non-fiction hybrid in which the diminutive Asian-American comedienne Charlyne Yi (Knocked Up)
sets out on a cross-country journey to discover whether true love is a
reality or merely an illusion. For a while, as Yi decamps in Tennessee,
Texas and Oklahoma, where she poses her disarming questions to an
assortment of ministers, psychics, biology professors and barroom
gurus, Paper Heart is a delight, as are the
construction-paper-and-fishing-wire animated interludes Yi uses to
dramatize key events from the lives of the several longtime married
couples she interviews along her way. Of considerably less interest is
the contrived "B" storyline (which eventually becomes the "A"
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storyline) in which Yi's own budding romance with Superbad and Juno
star Michael Cera (who appears as himself) wreaks havoc with her
progress on the documentary. But in Sundance -- as in most
relationships -- a 60/40 success/failure ratio is nothing to scoff at.