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”

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.

LA Weekly