The premise of Tatia Rosenthal's $9.99 is irresistible: for a penny less than $10 you can discover the meaning of life. The age-old secret to existence can be found between the covers of a small booklet, printed on the finest paper, with exquisite color pictures. One of Rosenthal's characters, 28-year-old Dave Peck, who is foundering, unemployed and living in a small apartment with his father, answers an ad and receives the booklet. He spends the rest of the film trying to impart this wisdom to his father, Jim, his brother, Lenny, and to anyone else in his apartment building who will listen. Trouble is, no one is willing to take the time to hear what he and the book have to say. Another book, "Be Heard," distributed by the same company, contains the key to Dave's conundrum, but unfortunately the publisher has gone out of business, so neither we nor any of the characters in $9.99 will ever find out what's contained in the booklet.
The other tantalizing aspect to this film is its use of stop-motion clay animation, which is a kind of filmmaking that I have loved since Gumby. Though $9.99 is more akin to the dark-edged works of Czech animator Jan Svankmajer than it is to kiddie animation. (I'll never forget seeing Svankmajer's adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. I don't think I was on hallucinogens at the time, but I am sure that I left the theater hallucinating.) $9.99 shares Svankmajer's penchant for surrealism. In this age of sleek, digital animation, it has a grit to it that one doesn't see much anymore, which is the feeling of hands at work, not on keyboards, but on the action itself. And unlike Nick Park's Wallace and Gromit films (also clay animated), it deals with adult themes and situations. The grit isn't only contained in the process; it is also in the intertwined stories of the melancholy characters that inhabit one apartment building.
Dave's brother, Lenny, is obsessed with a supermodel who has recently moved into the building. He will go to terrifying lengths to satisfy one of her peculiar fetishes. Down a floor, a young man breaks up with the woman he was planning to marry and spends his evenings in a drunken stupor with three tiny -- imaginary (?) -- friends who behave like frat boy party animals. A belligerent, broken down angel solicits the assistance of a lonely, old widower who has spent the last twenty years living alone in the unchanging apartment he once shared with his wife. A former magician finds himself down on his luck and has a run in with a repo agency. A young man teaches his delusional son the importance of saving, with the assistance of a piggy bank, whose crooked smile becomes more important to the boy than his father's lesson in personal finance.
When $9.99 was finished I wondered at my ability to find beauty in sorrow -- or more generally at humanity's ability to make wondrous artworks out of everyday pain. Perhaps this is what was contained in that little booklet, one of the -- apparently six --secrets to understanding the meaning of life.