What is the soul, exactly? Is it a force that acts on "a small gland" in the center of the brain, to quote Rene Descartes? Is it a meaningless construct created by ignorant people who fear change, to paraphrase Richard Dawkins?
Or is it a chickpea?
In Cold Souls, the final conclusion is merely a part of the whole, but a significant part. Paul Giamatti (beautifully playing an unflattering version of himself) is a deeply unhappy, neurotic actor going through a crisis: He can't seem to play the title role of a deeply unhappy, neurotic aristocrat in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya.
Rather than scare up a prescription for the antidepressant of the month, Paul hunts down an organization he's read about in The New Yorker: The Soul Storage Company, a clinic that extracts your immortal soul and stores it, either at its facility or at a warehouse in New Jersey. The organization's head physician, Dr. David Flintstein (David Strathairn), gives Paul a friendly consultation, and he decides to go for it.
And that is the beginning of one of the funniest, driest comedies of the year, and also one of the strangest movies I've ever seen-PG-13 for a little swearing and one brief shot of a nude model in a life drawing class.
Each person's soul takes a different form, and Paul's looks like the aforementioned legume. When the little brown blob is extracted, Paul becomes carefree in the worst sense of the word, callously hurting feelings at a dinner with friends and giving one of the most hilariously bad performances in the history of the theater.
When Paul rents the soul-yes, you can do that in this movie-of a Russian poet in order to give a Vanya for the ages, we (and he) are struck by the generosity and depth of the soul he's picked, prompting us to wonder why his own soul is such a small, shriveled thing.
Ultimately, Cold Souls is a movie that asks its viewers to examine seriously how they could be better people-and even better, makes the question a funny one.