Israeli animator-director Tatia Rosenthal's stop-motion effort $9.99 marks a commendable and exciting attempt to aggressively stretch the boundaries of animation beyond family-friendly parameters. An adaptation of short stories by Israeli author and co-scripter Etgar Keret that emerged thanks to the involvement of Aussie producer Emile Sherman, it conveys the day-to-day experiences of a dozen or so individuals who live in the same apartment complex in some large, unnamed Australian city.
The movie is more than a marvel of visual design. Every shot, filled with painstaking, gorgeous detail, suggests the craftsmanship of a Picasso or a Degas. Each silicone character's skin displays the weathered textures of real epidermis and suggests the presence of finely wrought muscular and skeletal structures beneath, while their beautifully animated eyes and facial expressions seem capable of projecting a mile-wide spectrum of emotions. When two of the characters (a repo worker and a supermodel) take off their clothes and make love, even their nude bodies are beautifully and convincingly rendered. Environmentally speaking, the director perfectly tailors each interior space to the character or characters who inhabit it, to the degree that the spaces function as expressionistic projections of the individuals' inner emotions -- such as the dingy brown apartment inhabited by a lonely widower, Albert (Barry Otto), with its depressing wallpaper and poor lighting. Animation students and other artists should study the film, frame by frame, for decades to come. The images alone unequivocally prove Rosenthal's genius.
Narratively, the film feels a little bit uneven. Rosenthal and Keret pursue a Short Cuts/Magnolia/Grand Canyon-like approach by crosscutting intersecting lives. To criticize the screenplay for its understatement would certainly be missing the point, for Keret (like Raymond Carver, on whose tales Robert Altman based Short Cuts) delights in minimalism -- the poetry of the everyday. But even when one takes this into consideration, the substories could benefit from more satisfying resolutions. On occasion the film deceptively seems to be headed for some Magnolia-like apocalyptic apotheosis, but that never happens, so that the skimpy denouement that does exist feels like a bit of a letdown. The movie's only other real narrative misstep involves Rosenthal's bizarre dive into surrealistic abstraction in the final 20 minutes, with scrotum-shaped beanbag chairs that take on anthropomorphic qualities and begin to talk incessantly, and another character who removes his bones and transforms himself into one of these talking chairs -- without even giving his girlfriend pause. The movie loses coherency at this point and suffers as a result; mercifully, the sequence is a brief one and the film quickly rebounds.
All told, $9.99 generally succeeds at entertaining the audience. A number of the characters generate their fair share of belly laughs and score points for inventive chutzpah, such as a magician character who drives a repo boss into a fit of indignant rage by making his television disappear into thin air, or Geoffrey Rush as a homeless down-and-outer who blows his brains out and returns as a cigarette-smoking sourpuss angel with huge wings. Rosenthal preserves Keret's sense of irony at the often outrageous absurdity of the world, to such a degree that an ironic tone pervades virtually all of the scenes, and that element feels satisfying; consider, for example, one character who sends away for a self-help catalogue on how to be heard and gets a book back from the company on how to swim like a dolphin. Rosenthal uses the irony and the profound undercurrent of loneliness inherent in each character's life to establish a poignant running theme about the deep-seated need that humans have to forge emotional bonds with one another in a fractured, ice-cold, and often insane world.
In the final analysis, $9.99 demands to be seen in spite of its minor narrative flaws -- for its visual bravura, its insights into the human spirit, and its offbeat humor. It falls short of the masterpiece that Rosenthal obviously sought, but it announces the presence of a major new artist.