The Australian-Israeli collaboration $9.99 asks an engaging question: What if P.T. Anderson made an existential ensemble drama starring refugees from the California Raisins commercials? The Andersonian elements are all here, including a precocious child learning his own lessons by defying his father's curriculum, a fetishistic sexpot, grizzled old men, biblical tropes turned on one ear, and a steady soundtrack of philosophical talk.
But with Claymation.
$9.99 uses a familiar cinematic melting pot—the apartment complex—as the backdrop of a character study in which very different people search for meaning. Director Tatia Rosenthal splits her time exploring stories both mundane and metaphysical. For the former, we get a depressed father, a kid obsessed with his piggy bank, a lonesome widower, and a kindhearted young man searching for answers in self-help books he buys for $9.99. Meanwhile, in the realm of surrealism, a man's relationship crumbles because he spends his time alone with his Abercrombie-riffic "beer buddies," who are actually thumb-sized figments of his imagination; a repo man falls in love with a supermodel and undergoes a metamorphosis that plays like Kafka for the IKEA crowd; and a homeless guy (voiced by Geoffrey Rush) blows his head off, only to become a freeloading angel. Those are some pretty heady issues for 78 minutes, but $9.99 is a tapestry in which the threads often go nowhere. Fascinating and original ideas slam hard into the wall of obvious allegory (alcoholism personified by miniature frat dudes? No shit?), while other compelling ideas are simply left by the wayside.
Animation could well be the final frontier for grown-up moviegoing. Films like Waltz with Bashir and A Scanner Darkly use animation to make broader themes pop, with jarring results. So why does $9.99 feel so sophomoric? Though visually pleasing, it's gimmicky, and the borrowings from Will Vinton simply gloss over familiar story lines and picked-over themes wrested from Angsty Screenwriting 101. Whether plasticine or flesh, people sitting around having generic conversations about the meaning of life are still just sitting around talking. It's a decent enough experiment, but $9.99 seems as confused about its purpose as its characters are about life. Ultimately, it feels as antiquated as the animation it seeks to resurrect. R.
opens Friday at the Hollywood Theatre.