Starring (by voice): Samuel Johnson, Geoffrey Rush, Anthony LaPaglia, Barry Otto, Leeanna Walsman, Claudia Karvan, and Joel Edgerton. Directed by Tatia Rosenthal.
Rated M (coarse language, violence, sexual references, nudity, and drug use). 78 min.
$9.99 refers to the price of books that are written to reveal the meaning of life - on sale at a cheap cost, and with illustrations to match. This film is an animated, “claymation” movie about the meaning of life in that form, and it is based on the short stories of Israeli writer, Etgar Keret, who co-scripted the movie with its director, Tatia Rosenthal.
The plot is complex and tells the stories of people who live in the same apartment complex in an unnamed city, and who struggle with their lives. The stories are varied, and they form no special pattern or seem to have obvious coherence. It is hard to know who the main character in the movie is, but it is probably an unemployed young man, Dave (voiced by Samuel Johnson), who tries to discover the meaning of life in a paperback he purchases for $9.99. Nobody cares about what the paperback tells him, including Jim (Anthony LaPaglia), his father.
The plot in all of its complexity is supported by brilliant animation and sharp dialogue which present a range of conflicts and dilemmas of modern life with great poignancy. The film begins with an articulate homeless man (Geoffrey Rush) stopping Jim in the street, and asking him for a cup of coffee. He threatens suicide, and Jim faces the conflict of feeling manipulated and wanting to help someone in need, but wanting also not to be responsible for this man should he decide to take his life. In another dilemma, a father in one of the apartments gives his son a piggy bank, hoping that he will develop good financial sense by saving money and putting it away. The piggy bank becomes a pet to the child, who feeds it money, and bonds to it affectionately. The coins the child feeds to the pig are its death warrant, and the child sets it free by leaving it in a park to stop its inevitable destruction, highlighting symbolically the relevance of capitalism to Society today. Then, there is the man who idolizes a self-absorbed supermodel (Leeanna Walsman), who has a fetish about smooth skin, and he morphs into a cushion for her to use among her other lovers. We also have a warring couple, Ron and Michelle (Claudia Karvan, and Joel Edgerton), who cannot make a commitment to each other. Finally, we have a disgruntled guardian angel (Geoffrey Rush again), who returns to society after being the hapless beggar who committed suicide when he wasn’t given the cup of coffee that he asked for. The angel – “a liar with wings”, who clearly “never made it to heaven” - latches onto a lonely old man (Barry Otto) upstairs, and wants only to take advantage of the kindness of others. All of the stories unfold together.
Each image passes critical comment on modern society and conveys moral messages about the characters, who live in a city somewhere populated by people who all have Australian accents. The movie jumps from the real to the surreal and the clay figures stumble awkwardly, their slow movement serving to accentuate their inability to solve their dilemmas. The film as a whole is a highly inventive take on life and its problems, but its episodic depiction of human relationships is very dark. Every conflict for those who struggle for happiness in this movie, finds its solution in fantasy, and the meaning of life for each character stays elusive. Despite its apparent grimness, however, the movie is totally absorbing as the puppet figures search for spiritual meaning in their lives.
The power of this film does not come from any discernible common thread in the images it presents. Rather, it rests in the imaginative force of the animation that brilliantly extracts personal meaning out of the viewer’s empathy with what is shown. All of the characters in this film are faced with a choice between living with what they have, and reaching for more, and most of them make the wrong choice.
This is not a movie for children. It takes considerable maturity to respond to it without feelings of great sadness. The film as a whole is an experience in surrealism that lasts, and it shows a Director’s rich and vivid imagination compellingly at work.
Icon Film Distribution. Out September 17, 2009
Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.