Animated cinema geared specifically for adults is an elusive proposition. Even if Pixar’s recent films (especially “Up” and last year’s “Wall*E”) and Nick Park’s Aardman entertainments have truly embodied that slippery archetype “fun for the whole family,” the mainstream of animation remains fart jokes, anthropomorphic jungle critters with googly eyes, and familiar voices spouting shoehorned-in lowbrow pop-culture references (toss in the latest from Smashmouth over the end credits for good measure). Even animation of the more transgressive variety merely R-rates those same tropes to gain inclusion in the latest edition of “Spike and Mike’s.” Why can’t animation be employed to stimulate the adult imagination and probe weightier matters than flatulence? Is the genre irrevocably linked at this point to juvenilia?
There are obvious exceptions: the melancholia of Don Hertzfeld, the serious sociopolitical content of Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s “Persepolis,” Linklater’s “Waking Life” and the recent animated doc “Waltz with Bashir.” Add to these Tatia Rosenthal’s stop-motion “$9.99” which takes a wan, whimsical look at the average lives of the denizens of an anonymous Australian apartment building. Based on a collection of short stories by Israeli author Etgar Keret (who also cowrote the screenplay), Rosenthal’s feature expands on her acclaimed short “A Buck’s Worth,” stretching her rough-hewn technique (her figures are ruddy and craggy in contrast to the plasticine smoothness of Wallace and Gromit) to feature length. It may not be a monumental event in animated filmmaking (like, say, Pixar tackling World War II), but “9.99”’s emphasis on the quotidian is refreshing.
Dave Peck is 28, living at home and intrigued by a pamphlet promising to illuminate the meaning of life for only $9.99. His brother, Lenny, is a repo man working a job elsewhere in the building collecting from Marcus Pocus, a magician down on his luck. Peck paterfamilias Jim (Anthony LaPaglia) trudges grimly through life, worrying about his boys, often finding himself at the wrong place at the wrong time. Meanwhile, retiree Albert upstairs tries to manage the temper of a grumpy guardian angel (voiced by Geoffrey Rush) fallen from the sky and downstairs Ron nurses a broken heart by partying with a pair of tiny frat boys. There are more characters, and almost all of them cross paths with each other over the course of “$9.99” in their individual quests to shake off the malaise of contemporary existence.
In the film’s most surreal segment, Lenny takes up with a supermodel who’s just moved into the building, gradually acceding to her demands to become smoother — first shaving his body from head to toe, and then later having his bones surgically removed, leaving him a pink beanbag chair with the remnants of a face sitting peacefully in his love’s living room. “9.99” does a nice job of imbuing its puppet world with realism (one of the film’s first shots is a lovely dawn over the apartment building that might as well be live action — as the inhabitants’ lights go on, the sun comes up and traffic starts to bustle on the street below) only to leaven it with doses of the unreal. This is perhaps the best we can ask of animated features, this jostling between cartoon takes on tweaked reality and outright flights of fancy.
Rosenthal manages to pack quite a bit of narrative into “$9.99”’s scant 78 minutes, but even with a variety of arcs it still ends up feeling somewhat inert. Maybe it’s the hokeyness of its setup — even if the film acknowledges upfront the inherent ridiculousness of the promise to reveal the secret of life for one low, low price, the film still uses this conceit to strain towards answers. Consider a similarly silly-on-paper but ultimately successful reach towards symphonic profundity: Paul Thomas Anderson’s raining frogs in “Magnolia” (following a string of subtle and not-so-subtle references to Exodus 8:12). Anderson’s film was also a collection of interwoven stories, but we never lost the sense of screws being turned, of narrative machinations leading inexorably towards some kind of epiphany, one which he delivered in grand, unexpected style. In “$9.99” epiphanies do abound, but they’re small, individual, and never add up to a unified statement. This diffuseness is calculated, and more like real life, I suppose, but here’s a case where a dash of artificial intervention might have helped.
[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]