DIRECTED BY: Tatia Rosenthal
FEATURING: Voices of: Geoffrey Rush, Anthony LaPaglia
PLOT: A series of intertwined tales about the residents of a Sydney apartment complex,
including a repossessor, a supermodel, a lonely old man, a dour angel, three miniature surfer dudes, and an aimless young man who buys a book promising to supply him with the Meaning of Life for the bargain price of $9.99.
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: Several of the multiple storylines generate absurd punchlines which depend on the element of surprise; I can’t reveal them without spoiling their intended effect, but be sure they are weird enough to merit our notice. But despite these (often black) magical realist whammies that invade the daily lives of the residents of Rosenthal’s Claymation apartment complex, $9.99‘s not entirely successful as weird film. By dividing its attention between an observational drama on the Way We Live Today and a surrealistic spectacle, $9.99 fails to find a viable tone. The bleak existential punchlines often fail to pop out of the flat dramatic background. Ultimately, the film works better as a feature-length advertisement for the short stories of Etgar Keret (who wrote both the original stories and the screenplay) than it does as a feature.
COMMENTS: Just like the promise embodied in the priced-to-move tome on the Meaning of Life, $9.99 is an intriguing work that constantly taunts us with hints that some great epiphany lurks around the next narrative bend, just out of our current view. In the end, the major lesson we glean from it is to temper our expectations the next time we hear a too-good-to-be-true pitch. The opening is a near-perfect, beautifully balanced and drawn-out battle of conflicting agendas between a passive-aggressive deadbeat begging for a smoke and a cup of coffee and a businessman whose sense of propriety ever-so-slightly exceeds his compassion. It’s easy to see how this exchange would have made a gripping short story, but the scene also sets up a darkly comic and ironic callback sequence near the end of the film. These great moments are, sadly, too few and far between. Although the individual story arcs of the nine major characters are interwoven seamlessly, the film suffers from trying to give each of them equal time, regardless of how inherently interesting they are. The anthology film is a difficult form to succeed in: even the master Robert Altman couldn’t always pull it off, much less a first time director. A storyline about a child and his piggy bank is unexpectedly sweet, given the morose tone of the rest of the film, but it lacks heft and a larger purpose in the story. The film would have worked better if it had revolved entirely around its most interesting character, the morose and afterlife-weary “angel” voiced by Geoffrey Rush, with the other tales submerged into subplots feeding into the main theme. Although I may be in the critical minority here, I found the Claymation to be unsatisfactory, and constantly wondered whether the film would have worked better as live action. The animation is only used to magical purpose in a couple of places; otherwise, its main effect is to make the characters less expressive than real actors. These clay figurines lack the human ability to express true wonder, fear, desire or disappointment. This may be a deliberate choice to highlight the characters’ alienation and strangeness, but in a mostly drab and a downbeat film in need of more warmth and richer textures, the tactic backfires.
$9.99 is an oddly positioned film that will have trouble finding an audience outside of dedicated Etgar Keret fans. It’s too weird to appeal to those looking for a thoughtful drama, but too dry and literary to build a cult audience. It’s worth a look when it shows up on DVD if some aspect of the production interests you—the author, the art of stop-motion animation, movies with thoughtful but inconclusive storytelling—but its not essential viewing.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“An aura of dreamy melancholy… pervades the entwined stories, which treat the bizarre and the banal as sides of the same coin… in the end too self-conscious, too satisfied in its eccentricity, to achieve the full mysteriousness toward which it seems to aspire.”–A.O. Scott, The New York Times (contemporaneous)