Friday, July 17, 2009

$9.99 (Australian Film Finance Corporation/Regent Releasing, 2008/9)

Charming Stop-Motion Movie Offers the Meaning of Life


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“Have you ever wondered, ‘What’s the meaning of life? Why do we exist?’,” runs the advertising copy for a book called The Meaning of Life, offered for sale for the titular price in a charming new movie called $9.99. “The answer to this vexing question is now within your reach! You’ll find it in a small yet amazing booklet, which will explain, in easy-to-follow, simple terms your reason for being! The booklet, printed on the finest paper, contains illuminating, exquisite color pictures, and could be yours for a mere $9.99.”

$9.99 — the movie, not the price tag — is a stop-motion animation feature, a co-production from Australia, the U.S. and Israel, based on a series of short stories by an Israeli writer named Etgar Keret and co-written by him and the film’s director, Tatia Rosenthal. It’s set in a modernistic apartment building — the exterior looks sharp and new but the insides seem to be crumbling — and it brings together a set of characters who seem to have little in common but having ended up under the same roof.

The central characters, more or less, are the Peck family: single dad Jim (Anthony LaPaglia) and his two young-adult sons, Lenny (Ben Mendelsohn) and Dave (Samuel Johnson). Lenny has a sleazy job as a repossessor — a sort of employment that in today’s era of economic breakdown may seem incredibly timely, but which in this film means they can come into a debtor’s home and take not only whatever the person borrowed money on and isn’t repaying, but just about everything in the house that isn’t nailed down and possibly a few things that are, as well. Lenny also has a seemingly hopeless crush on the supermodel Tanita (Leeanna Walsman), who’s just occupied the penthouse of their building and is actually willing to have sex with him. But her price for her favors is a chilling set of physical transformations that would have scared even the late Michael Jackson.

As for Dave — the younger brother who orders The Meaning of Life — he doesn’t have a job at all. He gets a tryout with Lenny’s employer, only he bungles the first repossession he goes out on because he feels sorry for the guy, a long out-of-work magician named “Marcus Pocus.” Also in the building live several other tenants, each with equally odd problems and hopes. Ron (Joel Edgerton) gets dumped by his schoolteacher fiancée Michelle (Claudia Karvan) and hangs out in his apartment with three two-inch gnomes, identified as “students” in the official synopsis but recognizable as such only to the extent that they drink beer (which Ron feeds them with an eyedropper) and party a lot. They learn to activate Ron’s turntable (he listens to music on vinyl) and generally use his place as a frat house.

Zack (Jamie Katsamatsas) is a schoolboy in Michelle’s class, who’s got his heart set on an electronic toy called “Soccer Jack.” As one of those parental exercises in teaching fiscal responsibility, his single father (oddly, while there are women in this film, none of them are mothers) gives him a piggy bank and tells Zack he’ll give him 50 cents for every glass of milk he drinks — then, when he’s drunk enough milk to fill the piggy bank, they’ll break it open and he’ll be able to buy “Soccer Jack.” Only Zack falls in love with the piggy bank, bringing it in to show-and-tell day at school and boasting that it smiles at him whether he puts money in it or not.

The final strand in this eccentric plot concerns Albert (Barry Otto), a retiree who takes in a homeless man (Geoffrey Rush) who turns out to be a guardian angel — though, as he explains, that’s actually a demotion. The angel hasn’t quite mastered the art of using his wings, but he has become adept at wheedling money out of passers-by by threatening to commit suicide on the spot if they don’t give him a handout … and actually doing so. (He gets away with this because he’s an angel, so he can’t die permanently.)

As arbitrary as this plot sounds, not only in its free mixture of natural and supernatural elements (the sort of thing usually described by the vague and overworked phrase “magical realism”) but also in the rather tenuous connections between the plot lines — one gets the impression each strand was a separate Keret story and it was only while writing the film that he and Rosenthal figured out ways to link them — $9.99 mostly works. The relative crudity of stop-motion animation works better than any other conceivable way of telling the story — a live-action version would have come across as way too arch and a computer-animated one would have seemed too machine-made and lacked the tactile surfaces of the characters as we have them — and the voices, especially LaPaglia’s, supply depths of character the clay puppets lack.

$9.99 is a quite impressive film that uses animation to express intellectual content as well as to have fun. In that regard it’s reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life — a film which used Rotoscoping (tracing over live-action footage to turn human actors into what appear to be hand-drawn cartoons) and told a similar story of individuals on an intellectual quest for the meaning of life. But whereas Linklater’s film seemed awfully preachy at times, Rosenthal’s expertly balances joy and thought, innocence and experience, and stays interesting despite the seeming arbitrariness of the plotting: this is one film in which “anything can happen” — and does.

It also helps that $9.99 carefully cultivates its universality. The plot description on gives the location as Sydney, Australia — though the film’s title is American and the check Dave receives as a refund when his second book order doesn’t go through is in dollars — but it really could be happening anywhere in the world where there’s a white-majority population and English is the native language. (For that matter, it could be happening in a country where English isn’t the native language; with the relative crudity of the stop-motion puppets’ lip movements, it would be easy enough to dub it into other tongues.) It’s also nice to see an animated film that frankly admits that people not only possess sex organs (Lenny is enviably well-hung) but use them to have sex.

$9.99 is a movie that’s well worth seeing if you can get into its quirky charm. It’s only 78 minutes long — it doesn’t overstay its welcome, though the ending seems abrupt and one could easily imagine it going on for another half-hour or so — and it’s certainly not the sort of cookie-cutter entertainment with which the major studios regularly bludgeon us these days. If you’re looking for something different at the movies, give it a chance.

$9.99 is now playing at the Ken Cinema, 4061 Adams Avenue in San Diego. Please call (619) 819-0236 for showtimes and other information.