If someone I was talking to in person dismissed a film as "weird", I might be inclined to ignore it; "weird" is so open-ended, and I usually hear it being applied to movies for the wrong reasons. Yet, when faced with Tatia Rosenthal's $9.99, I have no choice: instead of the optimistic, funny, ensemble-style movie the trailers fully suggest, I stumbled my way through impromptu suicides, miniature pot-induced homeboys, and a supermodel whose dream date is both hairless and boneless. Sure, different doesn't necessarily mean bad, but I'm not sure $9.99 has much of a point.
Upon reading a pamphlet he discovers in his mailbox, easily-distracted Dave (Samuel Johnson) hastily places an order for a book claiming to contain the meaning of life, and reads it from cover to cover the moment it arrives. His commitment on learning the whys of the world causes him to wander off of his job interview to be a repo man alongside his brother Lenny (Ben Mendelsohn), but it doesn't make much of a difference, as Lenny's attention is already fully occupied by supermodel Tanita (Leeanna Walsman), who lives in the same complex as Dave and their father Jim (Anthony LaPaglia). In fact, all of the key characters in $9.99 live in the same complex, making the intersection of their lives and goals almost inevitable.
Unfortunately, while the characters clearly have lives, they don't seem to have many goals. A few of them have simple ones, like young Zach (Jamie Katsamatsas) and his dream of owning a Soccer Jack action figure, but most of them are like Jim, and the irritable, disheveled angel (Geoffrey Rush) Jim meets on the street outside a coffee shop: they clearly want something, but what it is stays frustratingly unclear. Rosenthal's characters just wander around unhappily, waiting for someone to figure it out, and the viewers wait as well. In Dave's case, the technical truth is that Jim wants Dave to get a good job, but it's not clear what part of it would bring him happiness, or why Dave continues to ignore his apparently phenomenal cooking skills as means to a career. Other plotlines, such as the romantic dischord between Ron (Joel Edgerton) and Michelle (Claudia Karvan), as well as the real outcome of Lenny and Tanita's increasingly unorthodox relationship, and even the chemistry Dave strikes up with a phone survey employee named Camille, are equally underdeveloped. and It's as if Rosenthal and writer Etgar Keret wanted to wing it and make a loose, improvised film, and proceeded to ignore the cues they had in front of them.
The centerpiece of the movie, I guess, is Rush's angel, and he's just plain annoying. Maybe he's supposed to be funny: a smoking, drinking, hateful angel (territory already covered by Dogma and Michael, FYI), but he lounges around with an extremely conversational old man named Albert Kweller (Barry Otto), complaining about everything in Albert's apartment and trying to convince him that Heaven is like the beach. I guess Rosenthal deserves points for realism, since I'd bet the experience is exactly as uncomfortable and unpleasant as living with the character himself. I suppose, by way of existing, the angel does inadvertently promote a bit of change in both Albert and Jim's lives, but it seems like there must be a better way to set the wheels in motion, and I'd be lying if I said I thought the epiphanies were worth suffering through the angel's irritation.
2009 was a year packed with wonderful animated films, from the heartstring-tugging joy of Pixar's Up to the little-seen, phenomenally perceptive Mary & Max. Sadly, Rosenthal's characters, which appear to be carved from wood, are also unable to register the necessary emotions for a film like this. At times, it's even hard to tell if they're happy or sad. When the year came to a close, I worried that I might have missed another gem, and I did appreciate a few of the storylines and characters (Zach's bond with his piggy bank is funny and sweet, and I liked Dave and Lenny, even if their stories are unsatisfying), as well as the inclusion of other animations within this stop-motion production. But $9.99 lacks focus. It's hard to say what the book, or the price spent on it, have anything to do with the events of the film, and the events themselves are generally not very interesting. Next time, a stronger screenplay would be appreciated; I'd offer my advice, but I'm sure there's a reasonably inexpensive book on it that they can read instead.
$9.99 comes with perfectly acceptable cover art -- the spine might be a bit cluttered, but otherwise, it looks fine -- although, regardless of how much the character smokes in the movie, I find it bizarre that someone felt the need to Photoshop the cigarette into Rush's character's mouth on both the front and back covers. Oh, well. Inside the case is a booklet advertising other E1 titles, and the disc art is the same as the front cover.
The Video and Audio
I noticed some jagged edges (especially during the fairly awful-looking opening and closing credits -- the selected font just does not go well with the transfer's issues) from time to time, and there might be a bit of smearing during dark scenes, but on the whole, the transfer looks fairly good. The stop-motion figurines seem very intricately detailed and uniquely textured, even in standard definition, and the colors pack a solid punch.
On the audio side, the provided Dolby Digital 5.1 track is pretty good too; it's a cut above many of the low-budget audio I've heard recently in that it makes reasonably effective use of the surrounds, even if this isn't an overwhelmingly immersive experience. Yellow English subtitles are provided as well.
Two short films, "A Buck's Worth" (6:23) and "Crazy Glue" (5:07), also directed by Tatia Rosenthal and written by Etgar Keret, are included. Sadly, neither is particularly enthralling. The former is basically a promotional short done to convince investors to make $9.99 (it's identical to the opening scene, and even comes complete with fake credits and the sales pitch "to be continued, if you can spare a buck"), and the latter is a little primitive compared to everything else. The most interesting thing about either of them is that character actors Philip Baker Hall and Tom Noonan take on the Geoffrey Rush and Anthony LaPaglia roles in "A Buck's Worth".
Trailers for Runaway (2005), Blind Date (2007), and The Elephant King play before the menu. An original theatrical trailer for $9.99 is also included.
Sadly, neither the movie or the bonus features on the $9.99 DVD are particularly compelling. I'd say skip it, and wait for Mary & Max to hit shelves.