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by Kathi Maio

Post-Modern Hasidism ...with Puppets!

WALKING through downtown Boston recently, I saw a couple of street preachers expounding to a semi-enthralled audience of two about the "Meaning of Life." They had even emblazoned the phrase at the top of their easeled hand-painted poster-board. Beneath the bold phrase in a bright yellow box they had printed three words constituting the steps toward making sense of the human circumstance. The words were "Admit," "Believe," and "Commit."

It was an elegant and simple equation, if not particularly easy to pull off in real life. But that is one of the major comforts of religion; to validate and explicate the mystery of life for those who can give themselves over to it. Folks who prefer to decipher the existential equation along more secular or scientific lines are on their own. And, for good and ill, it usually shows.

Consciously or not, fiction writers tackle these themes constantly. Amongst them is a respected "young" (although now in his forties) Israeli writer called Etgar Keret. Mr. Keret's stories tend to be quite short, but less than sweet. Although ostensibly both apolitical and nonreligious, Keret—the son of two Holocaust survivors—clearly draws on both Hasidic tale-telling traditions and the extremities of Israeli society. Keret's characters are depressive, defiant, treacherous, and tender. They look for moments of connection, even bliss, in a world made up of a troubled past, an uncertain future, and an anxious present that always seems on the brink of violence.

His pithy, fierce fables explore the absurdities of life, and often do so using elements of fantasy and horror. Keret might explain how the inhabitants of the moon annihilated themselves or consider the disastrous results when a nervous expectant father dreams next to his wife's big belly. In Keret's slightly altered world a group of buddies might take turns being temporarily possessed by a dead friend, a writer might have his talent repossessed by a daemon, or a fish on a restaurant plate might offer pithy advice to a disenchanted diner. In a story that he dedicated to his girlfriend (later, wife), Keret even explored the concept of romantic acceptance by having a young man discover that his beautiful female lover transforms, each night, into a fat middle-aged soccer fan with a pinkie ring.

Whether gruesome or whimsical, Etgar Keret's stories are very visual. It is not surprising then that quite a few have been transformed into short films. And on several occasions Keret has worked with visual artists to adapt his works into graphic novels and novellas. Feature films are more difficult to pull off, in all cases, but especially when you are trying to take an absurdist short story and extend it for two hours without eliciting impatience or boredom in your audience. Realistic other-worldness is a challenge, especially in a live action film. Goran Dukic's 2006 film Wristcutters: A Love Story couldn't quite pull it off—while the same Keret novella of "offed" souls and their romances and adventures in the netherworld ("Kneller's Happy Campers") actually works very well in the graphic novel he did with Asaf Hanuka, Pizzeria Kamikaze.

For filmic transformation, Mr. Keret's work has been better served by Tatia Rosenthal, an Israeli-born and New York-based filmmaker. Ms. Rosenthal had previously adapted Keret's work into shorts like her 1998 NYU student film based on the author's marvelous story about a woman who (literally) seeks to mend her broken marriage with "Crazy Glue." Realizing that Rosenthal was not only a simpatico soul, but also that her preferred medium, stop-action animation, could well lend itself to the postmodern magic realism of his storytelling, Keret decided to collaborate with Rosenthal in bringing more of his fiction to the screen.

The approach the two took in constructing a feature film from Keret short stories was a good one—select several of his tales with complementary thematic content and intertwine them into a single movie. Ms. Rosenthal has said that they were aiming for something like "Altman's Short Cuts, only with puppets." But the kind of folks who fund feature films are not exactly inspired by that particular kind of high concept. As we know, Mr. Altman's movies seldom set the box office on fire. Moreover, Hollywood has always hated animation for adult audiences. It's okay if you pitch it to the kiddies and throw in enough puns and cultural allusions so that the parents can enjoy it, too. But to make an animated movie specifically for mature audiences (complete with puppet sex scenes—Oh, the Horror!) is more than the moneybags of tinseltown care to consider.

Hence, it took several years to get backing for the Keret-Rosenthal project, and it required the filmmakers to make the film an Australian-Israeli co-production to secure final funding. The result is an odd example of cultural détente. Although you might think that using Aussie actors to give voice to Rosenthal's silicone figures and Keret's very Israeli sensibilities would result in singularly indigestible salmagundi, such is not the case. If anything, the mixture of existential themes with fantasy elements, an Israeli outlook with an Australian patois, and adult content conveyed by endearingly coarse little 1/6 scale puppets all helps make $9.99 a unique and quite satisfying cinematic experience.

Set in an unnamed (Sydney? Tel Aviv?) everycity, the action of the film focuses on those who live and work in and around a single apartment building. The film opens with a dispirited single dad of two grown sons, Jim Peck (Anthony LaPaglia), trying to catch a cab to the office. When a homeless man (Geoffrey Rush) tries to bum a cigarette and a buck for a cup of coffee from him, the two end up having an unsatisfying exchange about moral responsibility and manipulation. And when no cup of coffee seems to be coming his way, the weary homeless man politely thanks Jim and puts a bullet in his own head.

Rush's disgruntled suicide shortly returns in the form of an equally peevish angel who ends up befriending (and exploiting) a lonely old widower, Albert (Barry Otto). Meanwhile, Jim despairs about his sweet and deeply domesticated son, Dave (Samuel Johnson), who can't seem to find or hold a job. Jim wishes kind-hearted Dave could be more like his cocky brother, Lenny (Ben Mendelson), a repo man with an eye for the ladies. But even a slick character can be brought down by romance, as Lenny learns when he falls under the spell of a beautiful supermodel named Tanita (Leeanna Walsman) who likes her men smooth, and (eventually) to resemble bean bag chairs.

In another subplot involving romantic frustration, a young school teacher, Michelle (Claudia Karvan) fears that her immature and lazy boyfriend, Ron (Joel Edgerton) may never make an adult commitment to her and to a family life. So she leaves him lonely…but not for long. An invading posse of miniature stoners are soon crashing with the hapless Ron and leading him to further juvenile excesses of drunken sloth.

And in the most touching storyline, a young boy, Zack (Jamie Katsamatsas), eager to own a soccer action figure, is given a piggy bank by his father so he can earn the money for the toy. But before long the boy falls in love with the innocent cheeriness of his porcine coin collector, and has to find a way to save his beloved friend when his father says that it is time to take a hammer to him.

While all of the inhabitants of the building long for something—anything—to fill their emptiness and give their lives more meaning, hapless Dave thinks he has discovered the secret to a purposeful and joyous life in the pages of a "small and amazing booklet" that promised to disclose the meaning of life for a penny less than a tenspot (giving the film its title). After reading the book, it all becomes clear to Dave. But, alas, no one else—including his exasperated dad—seems interested in achieving Nirvana, or even hearing about it.

Sounds like a downer. But it's not, really. A few of the characters meet with calamitous ends, but others open up their lives to new joy and the experience of pure love. We humans, even the tiny silicone variety, can ask for little more.

Chances are you never got a chance to see $9.99 in a movie theatre. Outside of the film festival circuit, it got only a week or so in a handful of theatres in a few major markets. So, do seek it out as a home video. It might not completely unravel the meaning of life for you, but it will likely entertain and delight you. And, along with films like Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's Persepolis (2007) and Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir(2008), $9.99 may also signal that the world—if not Hollywood—is ready for artful animated films fashioned for adult audiences.

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