Sundance Part 8: Cold Souls and World's Greatest Dad
Posted on Thursday January 22, 2009, 18:15 by Damon Wise
Cold Souls was something I'd been hearing a lot about about over the last week, but I knew nothing about it other than it starred Paul Giamatti and had shades of Charlie Kaufman, or rather Being John Malkovich. Turns out these comparisons were well founded: the film stars film star Giamatti as film star Paul Giamatti, and when we first meet him he's doing a terrible job in an off-Broadway stage production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. Giamatti is feeling blocked and useless, and to help him through this ennui his agent shows him an article in the New Yorker magazine extolling the virtues of soul storage. So Giamatti makes an appointment, meets the friendly but vaguely sinister Dr Flintstein (David Strathairn), has his soul removed and has it put into storage.
But being soulless has its downside: Giamatti becomes rude and thoughtless to his wife, and his performance in the play becomes even worse. To help, Dr Flinstein suggests a soul transplant, and Giamatti buys the soul of a Russian poet, which helps the film to become a massive hit. But Giamatti's body rejects the soul, and he decides to get his old one back, not realising how difficult this is going to be. If it sounds weird and wonderful, it mostly is. Giamatti and Strathairn are excellent, and when the film is funny, it's very funny. But the serious side of things doesn't always work. There's a lovely subplot about illegal soul trading on the Russian black market, but another one about the side-effects of being a an illegal soul-trade mule (you get floaty, incomprehensible extracts from other people's memories, apparently) is quite confusing and doesn't really work in an otherwise gentle but intelligent comedy.
My colleague Jeff Goldsmith yesterday helped a woman on the bus solve her screening dilemma: should she see 500 Days Of Summer or World's Greatest Dad with Robin Williams? Since 500 Days is getting a decent summer release anyway, Jeff suggested the latter, not mentioning anything about people dying in freak masturbating accidents. I wonder how she and her husband felt after seeing the latest black comedy from Police Academy's Bobcat Goldthwait, but I came out with a big smile on my face, even though I wasn't expecting to like it. Although Robin Williams gets reinvented on a five-yearly basis, this is one of the better ones, since it subverts not only his saccharine screen persona but the inspirational-teacher genre he's so closely associated with.
Williams is Lance Clayton, a single father whose teenage son Kyle is a a foul-mouthed moron, with no interest in anything except video games and internet porn. Lance teaches poetry, dates a pretty fellow teacher, and writes novels in his spare time that are forever being rejected. And when Kyle accidentally strangles himself during a vigourous bout of auto-erotic asphyxiation, Lance does what any good dad would do: he zips up his trousers, hangs him from the closet and pops an eloquent suicide note into his pocket revealing a private, but totally fake, inner angst. Surprisingly, the note strikes a chord with Kyle's fellow students, who all hated him, and Kyle becomes a folk hero: to the secretly gay jock, the emo girl and even the principal, who'd been about to expel him. Seeing his chance to finally have a literary hit, Lance fakes an entire journal that takes America's publishing houses by storm, threatening to become the biggest selling youth memoir since Anne Frank's diary.
Going in, I thought the title would be ironic and that Lance would be a self-serving and heartless opportunist, but there's a surprising sweetness to this film and Lance emerges a sympathetic, if misguided individual. Where Stay, Bobcat's last bad-taste outing about a girl who gives her pet dog a blow job, went a little overly serious at the end, World's Greatest Dad gets the balance just about right. As does Williams too; it's been a long time since he's done anything except play against type, and there's little of the excitable ramblings that can make his usual vehicles so hard to endure. I've no idea whether this will get a release in the UK, but it could support one, even just on DVD.