What is the meaning of life? What if I told you you could find out for only $9.99? Too good to be true? In the animated film $9.99, a young man buys a book for the titular price that promises to provide him with such information, while all around him life spins out a wealth of meanings.$9.99, directed by Tatia Rosenthal, opens with one of the most poignant, engrossing first scenes that I’ve seen in quite a while. Jim (Anthony LaPaglia), a middle-aged businessman exits a coffee shop and bumps into a homeless man who asks for a cup of coffee and a cigarette. He flashes a pistol (which he says he found under his cardboard mat) and says that he will kill himself if Jim doesn’t give him the money to buy a cup of coffee. For Jim, this continues a dizzying array of life experiences that ultimately began with his wife leaving him and their two young adult sons. Dave (Samuel Johnson) is on the quest for the meaning of life and unable to hold down a job. His older brother, Lenny (Ben Mendelsohn), a repo man, falls in love with a supermodel for whom he will sacrifice practically everything. This family of three shares an apartment complex with a young boy who desperately wants a soccer action figure, but becomes satisfied with what he has while saving up for it. Upstairs lives a magician, who cannot pay his debts, but can make a gift for his father disappear and reappear so that the repo men can’t take it away. On another floor, a young man struggles to decide whether or not to settle down with his fiance. There’s also an elderly gentleman who battles loneliness and an unexpected, ungrateful visitor, Angel (Geoffrey Rush).
While we could envision $9.99 as a live-action film, it does work best as an animated film because there are a few quirky elements, and one grotesque one that is quite surreal. Furthermore, the stop-motion animation also adds more levity to the entire proceedings, which seems to encourage us to take life seriously…but not too seriously. The voice-acting is first rate and Geoffrey Rush is a highlight, although he doesn’t get nearly enough screen time.
$9.99, in only 78 minutes, unpacks a number of significant themes such as purpose, love, loneliness, obsession, joy, forgiveness, companionship. The book tells David that there is not one meaning to life, but six. Yet the film itself reveals that the meaning(s) of life might be just as diverse as those of us who live it. Though there is nothing specifically religious about this film, these themes are deeply theological. On another level, in the character of Angel, we are reminded of Jesus’ challenge to us to see more deeply into the lives of those we encounter. Jesus’ call to us to serve the least of these is both a call to action and a call to clearer vision as they might come in all unexpected shapes, sizes, and locations.
$9.99 (rated R for language and brief sexuality and nudity…this R rating is a stretch indeed) is available on DVD and streaming via Netflix.