The third collaborative effort by the Israeli duo of writer/director Tatia Rosenthal and writer Etgar Keret, $9.99 follows the lives of a select group of tenants in a Sydney, Australia apartment building. The main character, Dave Peck, unemployed and living with his father, spends $9.99 on a book that promises to tell him the meaning of life. While Dave searches for the meaning of life his way, other people in his building — his brother, his father, a lonely old man, a young child and a troubled couple — try to find the meaning in their lives. Some find what they initially sought after, while others discover that what they originally thought they wanted is not what they really need. The film — made with puppets using stop motion animation — uses interactions between the residents of the building to explore love, death, poverty, responsibility, fatherhood and many other topics that we come across every day.
Rosenthal and Keret definitely know how to create compelling characters and intriguing stories. Right from the first scene, we are with these characters and this story. In the opening sequence, a homeless man asks a pedestrian in a suit, Jim, for a light and an extra cigarette. As the two share a smoke, the homeless man asks for some money for coffee. When Jim hesitates, the homeless man, after revealing a gun, threatens to kill himself if he does not get the money he wants. Jim condemns this manipulation and asks the homeless man to put the gun away and ask him for money “like a normal homeless person.” As the audience dangles in suspense, Jim tries to reason with the man, and after refusing to give him a dollar because he didn’t like being manipulated, Jim tells the guy “maybe tomorrow.” We soon learn there will be no tomorrow, however, when the trigger is pulled, and we cut to Jim in the bathroom in his apartment, washing blood off of his face and arms.
The way that Rosenthal films her puppets from similar angles and with similar lighting techniques as those a director would use to film live people allows the audience to get lost in the story, and we almost forget that we are watching puppets. The detail in the faces and body language of the puppets also imitates real life very accurately, allowing even more emotional access to these characters. By allowing us to understand and relate to the characters, even as represented by animated puppets such as these, the filmmaker lets us into their world, and thus, allows us to follow them on the emotional journeys they all go on throughout the duration of the film.
While, for the most part, the story made sense and the characters seemed to be living in a world much like our own, there were elements of the movie that seemed a bit odd. Three miniature men who talk to, befriend and drink with one of the apartment residents are easier to swallow because the man they are talking to has been smoking weed and drinking. The “bone removal system” that quite literally turns normal, healthy men into what can best be described as bean bag chairs is the most bizarre element of the film. Why one of the characters, Tanita, likes her men to be not only hairless, but boneless as well is not clear, and where that bit of unrealistic fiction fits into the themes and plot of the film is vague as well.
While this type of story has been done before in other movies, the odd twist is when this angel of the dead homeless man falls off of a building and dies when he crashes into the sidewalk. This, one of the final moments in the picture, leaves the viewer with quite a few questions. Did he really just die from the fall? Was he really an angel? Did he die when we thought he shot himself? Was that even supposed to be the same character?
Aside from a few unrealistic gimmicks that distracted from an otherwise serious set of circumstances, $9.99 is a well made, emotionally engaging film. The way Rosenthal and Keret rework Keret’s short stories into a single feature film allows the viewer to think about several different issues and meet different characters, without losing sight of what the overall story is. With realistically human-like puppets, relatable characters and a plot driven by understandable needs and desires, $9.99 is an entertaining, appealing piece of art.
$9.99 is playing on Sunday, Mar. 7 at 11:00 a.m., Tuesday, Mar. 9 at 7:15 p.m. and Thursday, Mar. 11 at 7:15 p.m. in Willard Straight Hall.
Original Author: Dan Goldstein