What if you could (fill in the blank)?

by Jon Pine

I’ve come to realize that some of my favorite movies might all fall into the category of “What-If” Films – films with highly conceptual themes, usually comedies, that generally turn reality on its head. They explore philosophical and spiritual ambiguities, with a liberal dose of irony, but do so with a light hand, thus avoiding one of the cardinal rules of comedy: Thou shalt not be overly preachy.

Jon Pine

“Groundhog Day” is one of those films. What if a shallow, arrogant and cynical weatherman found himself stuck in a podunk town, forced to live the same day again and again, covering the same podunk “human interest story” over and over until he learns that the true meaning of love and life is to be selfless?

Then there’s “Sliding Doors,” an overlooked gem of a film in which the story of a fired PR professional literally diverges into two wildly different scenarios – each showing what might have happened to her depending on how she reacted to a split-second circumstance of fate.

In one of my favorite Woody Allen films, “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” a dashing depression-era movie character literally comes off the screen to rescue a young audience member from her miserable life and abusive husband. But then the actor, concerned that his come-to-life character might ruin his career, comes to town with a tough lesson: Real life ain’t like it is in the movies.

More recently there is “The Invention of Lying,” a fable set in a world where lying simply does not exist – until one man tells his dying mother a small fib just to ease her suffering a little. One lie leads to another and another until we, the audience, realize that our entire existence relies upon the little lies we tell ourselves all the time.

And then there are the bizarre, darker fantasies imagined by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman: In “Being John Malkovich” he explores what it might be like to actually get inside the mind of another human being, if only for 15 minutes at a time – after which you are unceremoniously dumped in a ditch on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. In “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Kaufman exposes a fantasy we’ve probably all had at one time or another: What if you could completely erase the memory of an ex-lover who has caused you deep pain?

Paul Giamatti as Paul Giamatti in "Cold Souls."

Falling somewhere in the middle is a wonderful bit of existential (or is it anti-existential?) escapism called “Cold Souls,” written and directed by first-time filmmaker Sophie Barthes. It is now available on DVD, but not yet on Bluray. The idea, Barthes says, was sparked by a dream she had in which she was standing in line at a doctor’s office, right behind Woody Allen, each of them holding containers with their souls inside, to be examined by the doctor.

Initially, she intended to expand the dream into a screenplay for Allen – no stranger to “What-If” comedies himself – but a chance meeting with actor Paul Giamatti convinced her to write the script with him in mind instead – not only as the lead actor, but also as the lead character. Hence, “Cold Souls” opens on Paul Giamatti, the actor, playing a character named Paul Giamatti, also an actor, rehearsing a scene from Anton Chekhov’s play, “Uncle Vanya.”

But something is impeding Giamatti’s ability to nail the part. No matter how deep he reaches, he can’t summon enough of the character to breathe life into his stage performance. To a writer, this would be called writer’s block; to an actor, it is equally as crippling.

After struggling for a while with this dilemma, Giamatti’s agent tells him about a ground-breaking doctor who has discovered a way to actually extract the soul from the human body, thus freeing the person from the encumbrances of, well, you know – pesky little annoyances like conscience and feelings. This might be just what he needs, the agent says, so he can be free to concentrate on his acting.

Giamatti is the perfect choice for this character, and of course, for the actor. His droopy, hangdog look and edgy, forlorn demeanor encapsulate the very essence of one who is – dare I say it? – soul-weary. Not just on stage, but in his home life with his wife (Emily Watson), and out with friends –  not quite sad, but certainly not as happy as he would like to be. He seeks a change, but he’s not sure what sort of change he’s after.

Dr. Flinstein (David Strathairn) shows Paul Giamatti a freshly extracted soul.

It is here that the story really takes off. Without giving too much away, Giamatti reluctantly makes an appointment to see David Flinstein, the soul-extracting doctor, played by Daniel Strathairn. After the extraction Giamatti finds that perhaps having no soul, while it is certainly freeing, may be worse than having a sick soul. But when he goes back to the institute to reverse the extraction, he learns that his soul is missing – “We probably shipped it to our New Jersey warehouse by mistake.” (Poor New Jersey seems to be the butt of jokes in several of my favorite “What-If” films!)

The plot twists and turns around an array of quirky characters: The members of an international “soul trafficking ring”; a Russian “mule” who has transported so many black market souls she no longer has the capacity for one of her own; a factory worker with the soul of a Russian poet; and a vacuous soap opera star who believes acquiring the soul of American actor Al Pacino will make her a better actress.

The laughs, while they don’t come fast and furious, are deeply satisfying nonetheless – some running gags with chickpeas, a confrontation with the Russian leader of the soul-trafficking ring, and even just the sight of Giamatti in a big furry Russian hat will make you laugh.

But beyond the laughs are the deeper questions that haunt all of us. What is a soul, and where does it really reside – in the heart, the head, or somewhere else? How much of our happiness depends on the health of our souls? And the question that has challenged scholars and theologians for centuries: What happens to our souls when we die?

While it’s fun to fantasize about ditching your soul for a more exciting model, there are always consequences in these “What If” stories.  In “Groundhog Day,” Bill Murray reveled in an alternate universe where he could eat, drink and womanize with no consequences. But he also realized he was powerless to prevent the pain and death of those around him.

In “Purple Rose,” Mia Farrow chooses real life over fantasy, and finds crushing disappointment in both.

In “Being John Malkovich,” John Cusack learns he can inhabit Malkovich’s mind long enough to get the girl – but since the girl really doesn’t love him, he is doomed to an eternal prison from which he is forced to stare at the object of his affection – just out of reach – for eternity.

And in “Cold Souls,” Paul Giamatti learns pretty quickly that the soul on the other side of the fence is not necessarily greener. But more importantly, he learns, as we all eventually do, that happiness is a stacked emotion, the result not of taking something the other guy seems to have, but of, little by little, layer by layer, making something out of what you have.

And that’s just about as preachy as I’m going to get with this review.

© 2010 Jon Pine

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1 Comment

Filed under Entertainment, Humor, Posts by Jon Pine

One response to “What if you could (fill in the blank)?

  1. Robert Smith

    Those two fellers pictured are a couple of my favorite actors, of course, for their finest roles: Strathairn for his portrayal as the misunderstood Native American named Weejun in the Troma-distributed “When Nature Calls”; Giamatti as Extra Guilds Researcher in Woody Allen’s “Mighty Aphrodite.”

    I’m kidding; but I do love both films, for different reasons.

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