A modern and ultimately fatuous French philosopher once quipped that it was acceptable for a European to drink but not to eat alone, whereas for an American the reverse was true (our philosopher, I fear, was recolonizing the New World). While one of the surest signs of alcoholism may be its consumption without company, an ever surer sign is the amount consumed. That is to say, Americans tend to do things the big way, and that includes more than a slight tendency towards overindulgence. Why so much? Well, it does feel good, and if you're a closet hedonist, that's all you really care about, anyway. Yet feeling good about yourself comprises more than the physical well-being that we preach and occasionally practice. It is about understanding, especially as life moves towards its middle, that what you are doing is correct and virtuous. Virtuous, as it were, in relation to the values to which you adhere, whatever those fortune cookie adages may be – and now I may appear more than a bit cynical, a charge I must swat like a persistent tse-tse. Cynicism in a most pernicious form does invade, however, the life of the protagonist of this recent film.
That protagonist is Paul Giamatti, playing himself in a role reminiscent of a batch of other overly self-conscious films that tend to straddle the maniacally dull. A full-time actor and part-time husband, Giamatti looks like a man who has always eaten alone. He has a grim despair about him that is only heightened by his utter indifference to his appearance and health. "You should take care of yourself," says his wife (Emily Watson), but she knows as well as we do that such tactics are given as much attention as infomercials. As our film begins, Giamatti is hamming his way through an adaptation of this famous play. It has been years since I read Uncle Vanya, yet I distinctly recall being as bored with some of its machinations as the characters were with each other. That Giamatti is ensconced in what appears to be a second-rate production of one of Chekhov's weaker works should be reason enough for depression – and here is where the film strays in a laudable direction. The on-screen Giamatti is six years older than his namesake and it is precisely this state of affairs that he laments. "Now I am forty-seven; even if I make it to sixty, that means thirteen more years of this." What "this" may mean is not obvious to us or even to Giamatti. The only detail that remains clear is the deep personal and professional dissatisfaction that gnaws on every cell of his being. "If I could only awake one quiet morning," our nebbish moans and "find everything was alright," a barefaced admission that his ambition eloped long ago with his youth and fitness. Lying on his couch after another disastrous rehearsal, he listens to a message from his agent on his answering machine – a device that for a well-off American assuredly indicates no desire to talk to anyone. The message concerns an article in the New Yorker and a strange service with the almost impossible name of Soul Storage.
At this same time, a Russian woman (Dina Korzun) lands in the United States and is questioned briefly by Immigration before being let through. She will do a few things thereafter that in all likelihood would have changed that official's mind about her entry, but let's not belabor such detail. This same Russian and Giamatti will arrive at Soul Storage run by Dr. Flintstein (a suddenly wizened David Strathairn) and notice each other just as we, the informed audience, know they are obliged to meet again. Flintstein has one of those faces you should never trust because even if he is not currently planning on jugglery, he has enough sins on his conscience as to be capable of just about anything. Giamatti is counseled into believing that what plagues him is simply a grey and errant soul. All he needs to do is cast the thing aside ("You can even store it in New Jersey to avoid sales tax," says Flintstein with some practicality). The human soul, he is told, can be stored away like a fine wine to be opened when it or you are ready; Giamatti ponders this ecstatic state and decides that being soulless for two weeks should help him focus on being a better Vanya. He enters a gizmo that can be likened to a CAT scan and is soon shown a clear glass jug containing the essence of his being. "Why does it look like a chickpea?" he wonders aloud, but Flintstein has all the answers. Giamatti considers these mysteries then leaves a new man, and we begin life in the hollow carapace of a once-troubled human form.
Well, not quite. According to Flintstein, full soul removal is not yet possible; it can therefore be assumed that about five percent of Giamatti's soul was not extracted. He returns home, stares at his feet, weighs himself, and examines the equally quizzical fellow in all his mirrors. Has he changed? Is Soul Storage nothing more than hogwash to part with all soonness rich fools and their bank accounts? His wife senses a change, likens his dry almost scaly chest to that of a lizard, and evinces suspicions that, like most marital doubts, are never vocalized. Newly-found machismo hijacks his next efforts at rehearsal, and the director's reprimands indicate that Giamatti has no more rope left. It is here than he returns to Flintstein and learns that he can also rent a "Russian soul" ("A poet," he is told), an offer he eagerly accepts. This rental subjects him to a plethora of beatific visions: the memory of an orphanage, the soft sound of water pouring in a bath, the long anodyne stretch of a hallway beside a maternity ward, another mother gazing at a child, then a seagull – which leads us back to the author of Uncle Vanya, and I will stop my revelations here.
The second half of the film does involve, alas, the retrieval of his soul, which is exactly where the novelty falls away. The good thing about the use of Giamatti as opposed to other vanity projects that are so painfully self-aware of being self-aware is that Paul Giamatti comprises just another name of just another actor. He has little to show for himself that we can't already see. His reputation neither blemishes nor enhances his fictional portrayal, and what few lines he can utter with sincerity reveal a deeply unsatisfied plainness to his thinking. Perhaps that's why when he sees a catalogue that includes the essence of a Hollywood writer, only his laugh makes us think he is amused.