Paul Giamatti Nails His Most Challenging Role To Date: Himself

When it came to casting her feature debut Cold Souls, Paul Giamatti was writer-director Sophie Barthes' dream come true. Literally. Sort of.

A meandering, exquisitely shot dark comedy about an actor (Giamatti playing himself) who undergoes an experimental soul-extraction process to improve his performance in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, Souls was inspired by a vivid dream Barthes had in 2005. In that dream, her soul was the shape of a chickpea and its containment was a matter of not just a little existential angst. The screenplay that followed was intended for Woody Allen, Barthes explained Sunday following a sold-out screening; having given up ever enticing Allen back to the United States or attaining services that would no doubt require considerable creative acquiescence, she turned to the man she had enjoyed in American Splendor and had run into at an event not long after adapting her dream as a screenplay.

Naturally, Giamatti had some script consulting to contribute as well. "There was a lot of rewriting," he said Sunday. "We played with different ideas of backing off it being me, and making it more me. I had to find something that was comfortable, too; I didn't want it to be all me. I think part of the idea of someone using their actual identity lends it a more surreal, dreamlike quality that needs to be well-balanced. We found a way to be comfortable with a me that wasn't 'me,' and then we kept the name. We had a different name, but Sophie and I both felt it needed to be my name. It had lost something by not having it be my name."

But isn't that kind of Kaufmanesque? "I knew this question would come," Barthes said. "Strangely, it's a question I only get in the US." Yet she acknowledges the similarities in spirit, if not technique or inspiration; never striking within a mile of Charlie Kaufman obtuseness, Cold Souls is alternately a thinking person's comedy, an international intrigue (Giamatti's soul is stolen by a Russian "soul mule") and an ambitious, flawed indictment of quick-fix compulsion that plagues Americans up and down the social ladder.

It's no coincidence that a soul-hoarding hedge-funder has the last word in the film, and it similarly won’t be coincidental when the film avoids Kaufman's requisite, polarizing theoretical jabber upon its release. It's too clear-headed and elegant — again, less a dream writ large than a dream nurtured to life. We're not so sure about the bidding war anymore, but we feel confident you'll have every opportunity to scratch your head outside a theater near you by the end of 2009.