"Have you ever wondered 'What is the meaning of life? Why do we exist?’ The answer to this vexing question is now within your reach! You’ll find it in a small yet amazing booklet, which will explain; in easy to follow; simple terms your reason for being! The booklet, printed on the finest paper, contains illuminating, exquisite colour pictures, and could be yours for a mere $9.99."

This is the ad that alters the life of the unemployed, 28 year old who still lives at home, Dave Peck. In his struggle to share his find with the world, Dave’s surreal path crosses with those of his unusual neighbours: an old man and his disgruntled guardian angel, a magician in debt, a bewitching woman who likes her men extra smooth, a broken hearted man who befriends a group of hard partying two inch tall students, and a little boy who sets his piggy bank free. Their stories are woven together, examining the post-modern meaning of hope. 

An existential animation that lacks edge.

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: An apartment block on an inner-city corner acts as both the primary setting for and symbolic problem with Tatia Rosenthal’s Australian-Israeli co-production, $9.99.

The building’s design and immediate surrounds are not particularly Australian, yet the tenants – upon whose lives the multi-strand character study ebbs and flows – are distinctly Aussie. It is this not-here-nor-there ambiguity that makes Rosenthal’s blackly-comic stop-motion drama such an interesting if flawed curiosity.

The film’s most impactful moment arrives very early on, when Jim Peck (Anthony La Paglia), a forlorn man staring at the onset of middle-age and struggling with his own failings, meets a softly-spoken, gun-toting homeless man (Geoffery Rush). Engaging in existential banter over a smoke and some small change, the hobo shoots himself in front of Jim, setting in motion the kaleidoscope of character interaction that has seen the film compared by some critics to director Robert Altman’s brilliant Short Cuts (1993), though certain elements (an angelic supernatural presence and the closeted single-setting, for example) have more in common with the great Altman’s amiable but less-satisfying work, A Prairie Home Companion (2006).

Jim’s son Dave (Samuel Johnson) is searching for The Meaning Of Life in mail-order catalogues; his other son, the rogueishly-charming Lenny (Ben Mendelsohn) enters into a sexually-compulsive affair with Tanita (Leanna Walsman); Ron (Joel Edgerton) smokes dope alone with trio of tiny alter egos while contemplating suicide after losing his fiancée, Michelle (Claudia Karvan); a youngster (Jamie Katsamatsas) finds friendship in his smiling piggy-bank; and lonely retiree Albert (Barry Otto) experiences a divine visitation from the winged spirit of the homeless man from scene 1.

Rosenthal’s commendable but coarse characterisations are a visually unappealing collection of lost souls, their plights made all the more difficult to embrace due to the blank, shallow stare and lifeless rigidity of the faces at key moments. The occasional close-up, where detailed but obvious attention is given to the movement and emotionality of the eyes, is sorely missed when the canvas is broader.

A literal script and one-note voice work from this A-list cast don’t help the film (Rush’s sardonic angel provides some much-needed brevity at key points), which feels strained despite its 78-minute running time. Surreal touches occasionally work - Tatiana’s collection of beanbag-like ex-lovers, robbed of their spines and minds by an addiction to her sexual prowess, is an inventive touch; Jim’s final watery plunge, a delight. But there seems to be a 'winking’ to the audience – the film looking over its shoulder to gauge audience reaction, like the pause in a sitcom where the laugh-track is inserted, that makes Rosenthal’s film frustratingly rigid.

There is so much to admire about the skill involved in the stop-motion craft, but all films, regardless of their devices, rise or fall on their story, which is abstract and unengaging in $9.99. Rosenthal has made a film where the individuality of the artist and her dedication to her form is evident, but also one that lacks the focus or heart to transcend itself.


In Cinemas 17 September 2009,