Monday, April 12, 2010

An American life with no second act

I used to travel to France on business and I did not find the people slow or obtuse or having difficulty picking up on things. So why can French films be so slow? Cold Souls (2009), written and directed by French-born Sophie Barthes, has a pretty good joke to tell, but it tells it--slowly--then tells it again, then sort of loses interest in going on, flops around listlessly and stops.

Yes, the movie has ideas, or at least one, but it treats that idea like a shopper in a gift store, picks it up turns it around halfway, then puts it down and goes on shopping. At no time is the idea explored, developed, worked out, or even reversed. It's simply stated and we are all expected to sit back and congratulate a movie for having an idea.

The idea is that the soul is an extractable item, that it brings unbearable weight to some people, and that some people are happier without them. Yes, I know they should have brought Donald Trump and Paris Hilton on at this point, but no, they go to Russia, where everyone has "heavier" souls than Americans. This idea is presented without a speck of irony, as is the concept that Russians are either downtrodden plebes or gangsters.

Paul Giamatti plays an actor named Paul Giamatti, but strains credulity that an actor of that intelligence would imagine he could continue in his chosen field without a soul (unless of course he had a series on the WB). The self-referential aspect invites comparison with Charlie Kaufman's work, in which both John Malkovich and Nicholas Cage have played characters who have the same name and occupation as they do, inviting the audience to believe they are playing themselves. But Kaufman keeps pulling rabbits out of the hat, but this movie quickly becomes all hat and no rabbit.

A few examples: After Giamatti has his soul extracted, he has a terrible rehearsal playing Chekhov's Uncle Vanya as a manic narcissist, turning the role and the play into utter nonsense. Director Michael Tucker simply walks away in disgust, eschewing a chance to explore what's gone wrong. Giamatti immediately realizes the problem and begins trying to solve it (at first by renting another's soul). But what if Giamatti's career had taken off once his soul was extracted. At the moment he's a bit of a cult favorite. When he appears in a pop movie it is in a supporting role, perhaps as a villain. What if having no soul automatically makes you a star? Or what if he had to attend a family reunion with no soul? Would anyone notice? What would they see? The whole concept of being soulless is raised and then immediately dropped so that the film can go on a long tedious trip to Russia.

Why tedious? Because the pretty and marginally talented Russian actress who has had Giamatti's soul installed (under the impression that it is Al Pacino's--Al Pacino would never be so foolish as to have his soul extracted) does not seem to display any effect of having a different soul. Not that she fails at the task--the writer-director simply hasn't provided any opportunity to explore this idea. The whole thing makes no sense, because if her husband (who runs the black-market soul factory) can lie to her about the soul she is given, why bother using any American actor. Why not just grab the first unclaimed soul lying around, which would have saved a lot of money and effort. And we can't see that it makes any difference in the woman's behavior.

This goes to one of my complaints about films with strong abstract concepts--so many of them get caught up with the mechanics of their premise. So a great deal of the running time of the film is spent with soul-extracting machines and the containers the soul comes in and how the "mules" move in and out of the country, that the central concept of the film remains unexamined, and the characters have to spend immense amounts of time finding out information that we, the audience, already know.

Similarly, when Giamatti begins carrying around a Russian poetess' soul, a soul described as "beautiful," why doesn't Giamatti act on the promptings of that soul? Why doesn't he gain greater vision and insight of the world around him? Being sensitive to other souls doesn't seem to have any effect on Giamatti other than burdening him. The unaddressed question for the whole film is "What is the effect of the soul on human life? How does it make us different--from each other and from other types of life? If we are better off with souls than without, why?" At the end of the film, the young woman who has been acting as a "mule", carrying souls back and forth is left with an enormous residue from the souls she has carried. Wouldn't that give her real insight and vision? I don't know. She goes down to walk on the beach. Is that profound? I don't know.

Early in the film I remarked to my wife that this seems like an idea for a Gogol story. But as the film moved along, it remained nothing more than an idea. Doesn't anybody read these scripts before they start shooting? Didn't anyone notice that after the first act, the movie quit? Can't help wishing that a film with this premise had been made by Ricky Gervais...

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