Initially, the stop-motion animated feature $9.99 resembles one of those foulmouthed Davey and Goliath parodies from Mad TV. Yet as the first sequence makes abundantly clear, director Tatia Rosenthal and screenwriter Etgar Keret aren’t poking fun…they’re deadly serious. A semiabsurdist dialogue between white-collar worker Jim Peck (LaPaglia) and a bearded homeless man (Rush) builds to a blood-splattering punch line that decisively sets the film’s melancholic tone. Animation is so often used for frivolous flights of fancy that it’s something of a shock to see it employed in the service of a tale that emphasizes human foible and mortality.
That’s not to say $9.99 lacks for bizarre sights: The homeless man sprouts angel wings; a pot-addled slacker converses with three Lilliputian drunkards; a muscled repo man reinvents himself as a hairless blob to please his model girlfriend. These world-weary characters, all of whom live in or around the same apartment building, may be grounded in earthly problems and pursuits, but the fantastic always intrudes. The film’s title is the price of a self-help book, purchased by Jim’s ne’er-do-well son, Dave (Johnson), which promises to reveal the meaning of life. Happiness, or at least a happy ending, would seem to be the ultimate goal for everyone involved. Yet Rosenthal and Keret consistently play on audience expectations, especially in the recurring image of a piggy bank with an endearing yet horrifyingly fixed facial expression. It’s cute beyond belief, but we keep waiting for the damn thing to spring to life and bare a sharp set of teeth. There’s a fine line, it would seem, between uplift and insanity.