Paul Giamatti can do many things effortlessly. He can make a preening, argumentative founding father like John Adams seem lovably dadlike. He can turn his hangdog expression and bearded jowls into the essence of middle-aged frustration in movies like Sideways and American Splendor. But something Giamatti can’t do is play a character without a soul; Kevin Spacey--type blankness is beyond him. And, as his misfortune would have it, he’s now stuck in a Charlie Kaufman--esque metathinker about a famously neurotic actor (Giamatti himself) who avails himself of a goofy soul-extraction machine to get a little distance from the pain of playing Uncle Vanya. One flawless procedure later, he’s adrift.
Sophie Barthes, who makes her feature debut with an original script, has some fun with the banal details of her sci-fi concept. Giamatti reads about the soul-removal service in one of those wordy New Yorker articles; he then trams over to a lab on Roosevelt Island, of all places, where a graying doctor type (Strathairn) talks him onto the bed of a weird white machine that spits out a chickpea in a jar. (Giamatti is slightly miffed by the size of it.) Alas, the film then becomes an arty, strangely underwritten drama, as Giamatti pursues his black-market-sold garbanzo bean to wintry St. Petersburg, Russia, and the humor gets lost in blurry tourism. Why not have this uncomfortable man fall in love a little with Nina (Korzun), the sad-eyed “mule” of his spirit? And what about its temporary recipient, a spoiled fashionista and soap star; can’t she become deeper? Perhaps Barthes considered those options a little too obvious. Her film feels soulless in its abstraction.—Joshua Rothkopf
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