Film Review: $9.99

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There is something undeniable hypnotic and bewitching about Tatia Rosenthal's "$9.99," which if nothing else is a candidate for the most unusual film of 2008. Unusual not only because it's the first co-production between Australia and Israel but also a stop-action animated film that tackles the magically realist, existential short stories of Israeli author-filmmaker Etgar Keret. In fact, it's hard to think of another way to put these stories onscreen other than animation as each becomes increasingly surreal.

The film's Oscar-qualifying run in L.A. will be followed by a release in the spring. This very adult film certainly will please those adventurous souls who seek it out. Pity these are unlikely to be many.

Adapted by Rosenthal and Keret, the setting is a large urban apartment building sitting at the corner of an unnamed city. Its tenants confront problems and predicaments that (among other things) call into question the meaning of life. Indeed one unemployed youth, Dave (Samuel Jackson, but not Samuel L. Jackson), has sent away for a $9.99 mail-order booklet that promises to explain the Meaning of Life.

His dad's (Anthony LaPaglia) encounter with a homeless man (Geoffrey Rush), trying to bum a dollar for coffee, leads to a suicide that turns the homeless man into an angel who seems none the better -- or worse -- off for the act. He merely has grown wings.

The angel now bedevils the retired Albert (Barry Otto), who wonders if he'll meet up with his late wife in heaven. The angel has no answer because he's never been there. Dave's brother Lenny (Ben Mendelsohn) launches a smoldering affair with a supermodel (Leanna Walsman) who has moved into the penthouse. She coaxes him into a physical transformation -- here animation is essential -- that tests how far a man will go for love.

When Ron (Joel Edgerton) sees his fiancee (Claudia Karvan) leave him, he takes to drinking with 2-inch men who chide him on his underachievements. Meanwhile a little boy, Zack (Jamie Katsamatsas), saves pennies in a piggy bank for a soccer action figure only to grow more attached to the bank than the figure.

The film reminds one of the famous mantra about "Seinfeld," that the TV sitcom wasn't about anything. "$9.99" raises that existential malaise to this level: It's about nothing, and it's about the Meaning of Life. It questions -- in all sorts of preposterous, ironic ways -- the hows and whys of daily life and the lengths people will go for a modicum of satisfaction.

The sad-eyed puppets for Rosenthal' stop-motion action are superbly alive and move with fluidity. They also are anatomically accurate so that the sex scenes and "nudity" would nail an R rating were the film to get rated.

For the record, the producers make the curious claim that no one edited this film rather that it was "assembled as it was shot."

Opens Friday, Dec. 12 in Los Angeles (Regent Releasing)
Production: Screen Australia/Israel Film Fund in association with New South Wales Film and Television Office, Crossfields Yes and Keshet present a Sherman Pictures/Lama Films production
Voices: Anthony LaPaglia, Geoffrey Rush, Samuel Jackson, Claudia Karvan, Joel Edgerton, Barry Otto, Leanna Walsman
Director: Tatia Rosenthal
Screenwriters: Etgar Keret, Tatia Rosenthal
Based on short stories by: Etgar Keret
Producers: Amir Harel, Emile Sherman
Executive producer: Mati Broudo, Hezi Bezalel
Directors of photography: Richard Bradshaw, James Lewis, Susan Stitt
Production designer: Melinda Doring
Puppet master: Phillip Beadsmoore
Music: Christopher Bowen
Costume designer: Caroline Sherman
Sales: Fortissimo
No rating, 78 minutes
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