Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Released this week on DVD: "$9.99"


Grade: B

The Israeli writer Etgar Keret possesses an imagination not easily slotted into conventional literary categories. His very short stories might be described as Kafkaesque parables, magic-realist knock-knock jokes or sad kernels of cracked cosmic wisdom. When such vignettes are strung together into a feature -- as in Jellyfish (2007), which he directed with his wife, Shira Geffen, and now in Tatia Rosenthal's $9.99 -- they become even more illusive and strange. To watch these films is to enter an eerily realistic parallel universe where people and emotions are at once perfectly recognizable and completely bizarre.

This effect is doubled by the extraordinary technique used in $9.99 yo bring Keret's world to life. Rosenthal, an Israeli animator, has cast some of Australia's finest actors, including well-known performers like Geoffrey Rush and Anthony LaPaglia, to provide voices for figures made of modeling clay. The gestures and expressions of these handmade citizens of a meticulously realized city are given more poignancy by the slight hesitancy imposed by stop-motion animation. They seem to be pausing to think before each action or utterance, even when they are being rash, heedless or irrational.

And the environment around them is dense with meaning and full of life. Both large structures -- parks, buildings, streetscapes and rooms -- and tiny objects like bottle caps and coins have been modeled with exquisite, almost compulsive care. Indeed, Rosenthal's work is so scrupulous and unassuming that after a while you might begin to take it for granted and to allow astonishment at the film's visual texture to give way to impatience with its story.

And impatience may be among the responses that Keret, who wrote the screenplay, intends. His work proceeds from the recognition that life is tedious and confusing as well as, occasionally, charmed. And the characters who populate the daisy-chain narrative of $9.99 -- one of those we're-all-vaguely-connected-by-a-vague-metaphysical-condition Babel-Crash movies -- are in various funks and malaises or else just out of sorts.

Among them are a calmly sinister homeless man (Rush), who turns into a grumpy and sarcastic angel; a put-upon businessman (LaPaglia) with two grown sons, one dating a model and the other hoping to discover the meaning of life with mail-order self-help books; a young boy who bonds with his piggy bank; and a guy visited, in the wake of his girlfriend's departure, by three thimble-size, obnoxious surfer dudes.

An aura of dreamy melancholy, accentuated by Christopher Bowen's musical score, pervades the entwined stories, which treat the bizarre and the banal as sides of the same coin. But though $9.99 manages to be quirky and enigmatic, it is in the end too self-conscious, too satisfied in its eccentricity, to achieve the full mysteriousness toward which it seems to aspire. It is cold, curious, intermittently intriguing but ultimately more interesting for its artifice than for its art.

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