Popular Israeli author Etgar Keret (Wristcutters: A Love Story) is obsessed with weighty topics like the nature of life and death and the philosophies behind human connection, but his stories are rarely as heavy as his subjects; a keen sense of absurdity and a penchant for surrealism keep him out of deep waters. That formula carries through on $9.99, a stop-motion collection of his stories he co-scripted with young Israeli animator Tatia Rosenthal, making her feature-directing debut. In theory, the many interconnected characters in her all-puppet movie are linked by their search for the meaning of life, but as the film plays out, they mostly just seem to be muddling through their days, reacting to a world that’s frequently as weird as Rosenthal’s idiosyncratic visual design.
Some of the stories here involve a dead homeless man who returns to the world as a cranky, profane, selfish “angel”; the desperately lonely old man who takes him in and presses him for reports on heaven; the aging businessman who witnessed his graphic death and is spiraling into depression; and the businessman’s two adult sons. One is dating a supermodel with an eerie fetish for hairlessness, and is slowly remaking himself to please her. The other, an unemployed, directionless soul, is undergoing the film’s most literal search for purpose, by sending away for a book that explains the meaning of life for a mere $9.99. These and other brief tales unfold around the shabby apartment building where most of the protagonists live; the tone and the sense for the detail of the place and its personalities could come straight from Will Eisner.
Rosenthal’s animation style at times makes a strange match for Keret’s work. Her puppets move fluidly, and she creates a rich world around them, but their simple, rigid faces don’t always convey the depth and complexity of emotion his work calls for. In spite of the artfully contrived paint swirls that grace their bodies, and the painstaking detail of their construction, they sometimes look like ’60s Rankin-Bass characters, just about to burst into song. And a sex scene recalls the deliberate comic puppet-orgy awkwardness in Team America: World Police more than it conveys sensuality. But Keret’s alternately sweet and bitter sense of humor comes through clearly in $9.99, via warm voicework by vets like Geoffrey Rush and Anthony LaPaglia, and through a straight-faced script that favors gentle melancholy over big, broad, strident emotions. It’s a sleepy film, both in its consciously low-key execution and in its startling flashes of dreamlike whimsy.