Rating: * * *
Verdict: Engrossing but underdeveloped.

The debut feature of its writer-director, this disarmingly deadpan comedy can scarcely avoid comparison with (and even accusations of ripping off) 1999's Being John Malkovich. But in taking a more measured approach to a similar conceit, it's a more delicately crafted piece of work than the earlier film, which I thought far too clever for its own good.

Cold Souls' major flaw is that it's a film without a payoff - or even an ending really. The director's decision to have it quietly fade away may have a certain metaphysical verisimilitude, but it makes for a frustrating experience at the movies.

The always-watchable Giamatti, the movies' leading sad sack of the past decade, plays a New York actor called ... Paul Giamatti. His struggle with the lead role in an off-Broadway production of Uncle Vanya is turning into a professional crisis, when his director points out a New Yorker article about a company that extracts and stores souls.

The lure of this quasi-Faustian transaction is that the actor, freed from the unbearable heaviness of being, will find the ease to reconnect with his craft. But it doesn't work out that way and when he goes to get his soul back he discovers that the high-tech offices of Soul Storage are a front for an international trafficking operation that sells souls to (who else?) the Russians.

Thus is set in train a goofy metaphysical thriller which is like Woody Allen making Dostoevsky as sci-fi (Barthes says she wrote the film after a dream in which Allen appeared).

Most of the film's many pleasures derive from the fact that the participants play its improbable storyline dead straight. Strathairn, a John Sayles' regular, is particularly winning as Soul Storage's chief executive Dr Flintstein, and Korzun fittingly mysterious as a transatlantic soul mule. But the film doesn't feel fully worked out. Watson, as Giamatti's wife, and Ambrose as Flintstein's assistant are underwritten and the film loses momentum in the third quarter before sputtering to a stop.

Perhaps there was never more than a cinematic short story here, in which inconclusiveness might have been a greater virtue. But it's a strong statement from a new film-maker who should be watched.

Cast: Paul Giamatti, David Strathairn, Dina Korzun, Emily Watson, Lauren Ambrose
Director: Sophie Barthes
Running time: 101 mins
Rating: M (low-level offensive language)