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by Jay Seaver

"At that price, it may be worth it."
4 stars

Movies made up of a group of intersecting stories often get downright peculiar. After all, one of the basic ideas is that the people passing in and out of our lives that we think of as background lead an existence just as complicated as we do. Maybe our lives are not quite as odd as those of the characters in "$9.99", since living in an animated world allows things to get very strange, but it's not as far off as it may seem.

Start with the Peck family. Father Jim (voice of Anthony LaPaglia) normally frets about his underachieving kids, but an encounter with a homeless man (voice of Geoffrey Rush) carrying a gun leaves him shaken. Younger son Dave (Samuel Johnson) is unemployed in his mid-twenties, and still lives with his father, spending the day cooking (apparently no restaurants are hiring); he's just ordered a book from a catalog that will supposedly tell him the meaning of life. His older brother Lenny (voice of Samuel Johnson) works as a repossessor, and while he's moving a neighbor's things out, he meets someone moving in - Tanita (voice of Leeanna Walsman), a model who likes her men smooth. There's also Zack (voice of Jamie Katsamatsas), a kid who wants a toy soccer player but instead receives a piggy bank; Albert (voice of Barry Otto), a lonely old man who has been visited by a most disreputable angel; and Ron (voice of Joel Edgerton), whose girlfriend Michelle (voice of Claudia Karvan) has just left him and who seems to be imagining three lilliputian roommates even more immature than he is.

These characters mostly live in the same apartment building, and briefly encounter each other as neighbors do. Before appearing on screen, they were the cast of various short stories by Etgar Keret, who collaborated on the screenplay with director Tatia Rosenthal (and, in an amusing in-joke, is the author listed on the cover of the book that tells the meaning of life). Not having read them, I don't know whether these stories originally shared characters, but Keret and Rosenthal have left them reasonably discrete for the film: Some tie together, but for the most part, each contains its own beginning, middle, and end, with all five or six packed into a compact 78 minutes.

Rosenthal's animation style does take a little getting used to. The film is primarily stop-motion with the occasional computer assist - mostly for water, and presumably compositing and wire removal - and the character models often look well-used. Rosenthal will hold a tight close-up for long enough that the audience can see that the paint has peeled, the "skin" often seems stretched tight over an unyielding material, and when characters speak, the lips seem to be animated independent of the rest of the face. It's a style that, when seen in a two-minute preview, looks bad, but to which the audience can quickly acclimate. That's made much easier by the way that every other movement in the film looks extraordinarily natural; I can't remember another stop-motion picture where the people walked and gestured so much like actual people.

This style and execution is probably no accident; it simultaneously makes things seem grounded in the real world without the impossible being too jarring. Keret, Rosenthal, and their voice cast do an impressive job of getting us to believe in these characters as real people, especially since the characters are split between the world-weary (the angel, Jim) and optimistic (Zack, Dave), and how Albert manages to combine them both. Some of the characters are a little underused; I'd have liked to see more of Michelle, or the magician whose property is being repossessed.

The film's sense of humor is sneaky: It's generally warm and almost quaint, and then the filmmakers will hit the audience with something that stings, including a great one at a pivotal moment. It's not a movie that generally goes for big laughs, but one that certainly has the audience laughing all the way through. It's often laughs of quasi-familiarity, - the audience may not be able to empathize with the exact situation, but often enough they'll certainly understand the feeling exactly.

In truth, for all the style and some of the situations are unusual, "$9.99" isn't nearly as weird as its oddest bits. It's quirky and comfortable at the same time.

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originally posted: 06/26/09 10:05:09
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.

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  19-Jun-2009 (R)
  DVD: 23-Feb-2010


  DVD: 23-Feb-2010

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