A friend of mine who teaches theater takes great delight in telling how he once heard an actor, during an appearance on a TV morning show, pompously announce that at one point he'd temporarily quit acting because of an "existential crise." "Crise," which rhymes with "knees," is precisely the word to describe what the character played by Paul Giamatti -- named, conveniently, Paul Giamatti -- is suffering in Sophie Barthes' clever, prickly funny debut feature "Cold Souls." Giamatti is a New York-based actor rehearsing a production of "Uncle Vanya," and the problem isn't that he's just not "feeling" his character -- he's feeling him a little too much. At the suggestion of his agent, he decides to have his soul removed and placed in cold storage, a service offered by a company -- "conveniently located on Roosevelt Island," the movie tells us -- run by a slick, calm Beelzebub played by David Strathairn. (His character has the amusingly evocative cartoon name "Dr. Flintstein.") Once Giamatti has shed his soul, he finds acting much easier; he's also, suddenly, lousy at it, and his colleagues and loved ones (including his wife, played by Emily Watson) are understandably perplexed.
But getting that soul back proves to be a lot more difficult than removing it was in the first place: For one thing, it requires that Giamatti throw his lot in with a skinny blond Russian temptress named Nina (Dina Korzun), who's involved in a black-market soul-trading operation. For another, Giamatti's soul resembles a chickpea -- heck, it is a chickpea -- and it gets a little dried out en route to finding its way back to its rightful owner.
Perhaps that makes "Cold Souls" sound too precious and too self-conscious, and the movie does occasionally tread over the line of being coy and overly self-referential, in the manner of Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, N.Y." But even though "Cold Souls" invites comparisons to that picture, it ends up cutting deeper by, perhaps paradoxically, being lighter. Barthes, who also wrote the screenplay, has firm control over the movie's tone, and she steps in decisively whenever the proceedings get too dangerously meta. Barthes seems to be unintentionally answering Kaufman's anguished cry of "What does life mean?" with a mischievous, wicked cackle. Her movie is both less ambitious and less overtly tortured than Kaufman's is and, in the end, more moving for it.
Giamatti's performance takes a little getting used to. At first, he seems to be reworking the simmering neuroses of Harvey Pekar, the character, based on the real-life cult comic-book writer, he played so wonderfully in "American Splendor"; Giamatti's forehead even seems to be wrinkling in the same precise, Pekar-like formations.
But Giamatti builds the role slowly and gradually, eventually bursting the confines of his character's insecurity. His performance ends up in a place that's unnerving and peacefully relaxed at once, which serves the movie's mournful, ambiguous ending perfectly. The idea is that Giamatti's Paul Giamatti can't understand himself from the inside-out until he looks at himself from the outside-in. "Cold Souls" works precisely because its ambitions are somewhat mellow; this isn't a relentlessly high-strung picture. Barthes and Giamatti do more with less, turning the idea of excessive navel-gazing into a kind of game. You might call it kick the crise.