Baked Hope: Clay Animation '$9.99' Hits a Narrative Wall

City Pulse | June 15, 2009
An urban Sidney, Australian apartment building is the alternately public and private forum for a disparate collection of humanity represented as animated clay people in Tatia Rosenthal's quirky yet unsatisfying stop-motion drama that vacillates between a gee-whiz philosophy, surreal digressions of whimsy, and twisted sexual expression. Geoffrey Rush is the voice of a suicidal homeless man who comes back as a disenfranchised winged angel to converse with an aged tenant after having offed himself in the presence of Jim (voiced by Anthony La Paglia), a widowed father to a couple of grown boys busy searching for the meaning of life in all the wrong places. Surreal elements blend with a prosaic narrative that refuses to ever come to life. The film is significant if only as a first co-production between Tel Aviv and Australian film companies. Intriguing as a flawed experiment in animation, "nine dollars ninety-nine" (as it's spoken in proper Aussie dialect) suffers from a lack of thematic continuity that leaves the audience wanting both more and less -- more story and less metaphor.

The most striking aspect of 9.99 is how simultaneously fantastic yet awful its stop-motion animated elements are. The buildings and set designs are infinitely impressive, while more often than not the clay characters' faces repel when they should invite audience affiliation.

The film's thematically loose title comes from the price that its twenty-something character Dave Peck pays for a mail order book that purports to contain the meaning of life. Yet somehow the filmmakers never allow Dave to speak the magic words that he is convinced have given meaning to his existence. It's a film that sets out to be a "meditation" on the significance of hope, and as such dooms itself to wallow in an over-intellectualized mire of metaphorical experiences. A little boy who dreams of possessing a toy figure of a soccer player with a ball attached to his toe, gets a piggy bank from his father that will enable him to save up every 50 cent reward he gets for finishing his milk to purchase the plaything. But the child misreads the significance of the bank and becomes so beguiled by the inanimate pig's smile that he forgets about toy he once wanted, and seeks deliverance for the hollow pig. It's a subplot that seems to prove the Eastern European ideology that hope is a useless concept.

Adapted from short stories by Etgar Keret, the film's tag line, that it's an animated feature which "offers slightly less than $10 worth about the meaning of life," is unfortunately all too true about a movie whose visuals far outweigh its dramatic reach. For a movie that could only shoot 20 seconds of footage a day, 9.99 offhandedly gives greater credence to the Wallace & Gromit animators, who grasp the narrative demands of their chosen area of stop-motion animation with a fully-realized intentionality.

Rated R. 78 mins. (C) (Two Stars)
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