$9.99 finds the magic in the mundane

Stop-motion style proves especially effective for the film’s dirty-dish realism

You may be forgiven for thinking that the title $9.99 refers to the animation budget of the bittersweet stop-motion film. An Australian/Israeli co-production, $9.99 looks shabby and shopworn, especially compared to super-slick 3-D computer-animated features like Up that command today’s movie theaters. But the mundane look is exactly the point of $9.99, which focuses on the lives of a handful of ordinary people living in a Sydney apartment building.

$9.99 actually refers to the cost of a mail-order book titled The Meaning of Life that promises answers for young, unemployed Dave Peck (voiced by Samuel Johnson). Meanwhile, his father, Jim (Anthony LaPaglia), tries to sort through his midlife crisis as a single parent and office drudge. Jim’s other son Lenny (Ben Mendelsohn) works for a repo company (“We’re just like Robin Hood, but in reverse”) and gets lucky with the new supermodel in the building. And you know what that means: the hottest sex scenes involving clay since Ghost.

Even the film’s flights of fancy prove resolutely earthbound. One young slacker, abandoned by his fiancée, hallucinates a trio of beer-drinking potheads, one of whom dangles from his turntable’s tonearm. Geoffrey Rush provides the voice of a sardonic angel who pays an unsatisfying visit to an elderly widower. “Is there a God? Is he tall?” wonders the lonely old man. Israeli writer Etgar Keret adapted his short stories for the screenplay, which frequently involves men abandoned by wives or mothers, wondering why they have so little joy in their lives.

Reminiscent of the lesser-known dramatic shorts from Wallace & Gromit creators Aardman Animations, $9.99 suggests a stop-motion animation version of Ken Loach’s and Mike Leigh’s downbeat working-class dramas. Usually animation expresses playful caricature and exuberant imagination, but director Tatia Rosenthal’s lumpy style proves especially effective for $9.99’s dirty-dish realism. The characters come across as more limp, unwashed and despairing than they would if played by flesh-and-blood actors, while the voice ensemble uniformly offers deeply felt, soft-spoken performances. $9.99’s characters prove capable of finding epiphanies and fleeting moments of happiness, even though they have feet of clay, both literally and figuratively.