It's the fairly near future. You can tell that because in the first few minutes of the movie Paul Giamatti is reading a New Yorker article, so newspapers and magazines still do exist in this world. The actor, who plays himself with his real name, is intrigued by a new science article about people who are temporarily storing their souls in little boxes at a bank-like vault and living without them for a short while.
Why do people do it? Well, they say it's freeing. People find themselves without concerns, without worries and without inhibitions. Not surprisingly, that's an attractive scenario for an actor, and Giamatti is sort of having actor's block while working on a revival of Uncle Vanya, the heavy Russian play by Anton Chekhov. He's on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
So he heads to a rather sterile office on Roosevelt Island, where David Strathairn plays the guy in charge of the Soul Storage company. He explains the process and the limited health dangers, and of course there's an easy finance plan. When the soul is extracted, the actor is shocked to see a garbanzo bean in a little box.
It's funny to watch Giamatti transform into a soulless person, and that's where his comic brilliance shines the most. It's not the weird stiff portrayal that Robin Williams gave (yeah, those of you who saw Bicentennial Man are groaning right now), and he's not the creepy automaton that Haley Joel Osment plays in A.I. Artificial Intelligence (although some people may say that every portrayal that Haley gives is that way).
No, Giamatti without a soul is a bit more subtle, and that's what makes it uncomfortably funny. It's most notable during his show rehearsals, when his wildly diverse interpretations of Uncle Vanya shock his director and co-star.
His wife (played by Emily Watson, who is not his wife in real life) notices that something very, very weird is going on with him, so she confronts him. Her face contorts into true horror as he slowly confesses that he "extracted and stored" his soul. "Oh, but I still do have a percent of it," he explains. She's mostly disturbed that it took her so long to figure out that it's missing.
When he realizes that his acting isn't improving without his soul and his wife isn't happy about the idea at all, he tries to get it back, only to discover that a ruthless "soul smuggler" and a sexy "soul mule" (Dina Korzun) have stolen it and smuggled it to Russia. Giamatti seeks out his soul and confronts the smugglers, as well as "soul donors" who need some quick money.
One funny secret about the movie that came out during the question-and-answer period after the film's debut at the Los Angeles Film Festival earlier this summer is that when the writer/director Sophie Barthes first heard Giamatti's rendition of Uncle Vanya without a soul, it was reminiscent of an over-the-top William Shatner from his Captain Kirk Star Trek days.
"I thought, 'Oh my, he's doing a William Shatner impersonation, it's brilliant!' " the director said, embarrassing Giamatti. "I could not have directed it any better."
Blushing, Giamatti said, "I love Shatner. I would never do anything to hurt him."
The whole idea for the movie came to Barthes in a dream, and she says, "I use my dreams a lot in my work. This came to me in a dream where Woody Allen was storing his soul, and he was upset because when he got the tube with the soul inside it looked like a chick pea. He was very upset. Obviously I was never going to get Woody Allen in the movie, but I saw Paul Giamatti in a movie, and I decided to write it for him. I was determined that if he didn't do it, then I wouldn't do the movie."
Of course, Giamatti jumped at playing something that is quite out of type for him. It's his own Being John Malkovich or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It's an astoundingly adept and enjoyable first feature film for Barthes, who admits that she's not really into science fiction themes or stories.
That being said, the acting (especially by the non-Americans) is uneven and forced (even the ones who have souls). The story is unnecessarily complex, and many of the scenes seem redundant.
Is it a modern-day film noir? Is it a comedy? Is it a tragedy? Is it a thriller? Is it even science fiction? I say it's an odd amalgam of them all. The PG-13 movie has a chase, it has intrigue, and it's set in a realistic, but slightly off, world of the future. And it's nice to see work from a director and writer who has not yet sold her soul to Hollywood.