The character actor’s curse is the risk of being—no, the need to be—constantly self-parodic, cartoonishly repeating the quirks and ticks of a role allotted to him by popular taste (or uncreative casting agents). In Paul Giamatti’s case, notwithstanding the rather game attitude the actor puts across in interviews, the role is one of a hopeless, emotionally hamstrung neurotic. With few anomalies (John Adams!), Giamatti has been riding his particular character-actor niche pretty hard since 2004’s Sideways—and who can blame him? Tweak with a little bile (as Harvey Pekar in American Splendor), a little jollity (as Fred Claus‘s more famous brother), or a little pomposity (in the rather dumb The Illusionist), and Giamatti’s stock character can fit a high-profile supporting role in basically every other movie that comes out of Hollywood. In Sophie Barthes’s Cold Souls, however, the irritating, self-involved person that Paul Giamatti plays is Paul Giamatti, a semi-famous actor and tortured artiste, burdened with the metaphysical heaviness of performing Chekhov and a lifetime of apparently complex emotions.
Borrowing the life of a name actor—even a name character actor—for a character in one’s film is an increasingly common tack, one that probably seems irresistible flattery to the actor in question and a convenient shortcut for the screenwriter. Why write a character when you can use a real person? But from the film’s outset, placing Giamatti’s irritable man-child persona center-stage causes some problems. In a film as purportedly self-reflexive as Cold Souls, the decision to cast Paul Giamatti as himself presumes that we recognize the actor’s persona as fully and immediately as that of, say, John Malkovich. But when we see the actor breathily rehearsing the title role of Uncle Vanya, chewing scenery before the stage has even been set, we realize that Giamatti’s usual character—at least, the one that Cold Souls wishes to exploit—is paper-thin, working better on the periphery than in the center of the narrative.