- The Washington Times - Friday, June 26, 2009

Israeli author Etgar Keret has wowed readers for the past decade or so with his poignant and surreal short stories in collections such as “The Nimrod Flipout” and “The Girl on the Fridge.” His stories are bizarre little concoctions — often metaphysical, always sublimely absurd and typically very moving — written in a clipped, laconic fashion and featuring subjects that reflect his Israeli upbringing.

In the animated adaptation “$9.99,” Mr. Keret and co-writer Tatia Rosenthal have taken several of his stories, moved them to Australia and woven them together to create an interlocking narrative, a sort of stop-motion “Pulp Fiction.” The common thread running through the various tales is the search for the meaning of life — even if the characters aren’t sure that’s exactly what they’re seeking.

“$9.99” takes its name from “For Only $9.99 (Inc. Tax and Postage),” a story in which an aimless youth purchases a book promising to teach him the meaning of life; the lesson imparted from the book, ordered from a catalog, is that there are a number of ways to achieve life’s goals. The same basic idea underpins the movie: As the characters wander through their day-to-day lives, they come to realize that what they thought was important isn’t necessarilywhat they should be striving for.

There’s the lonely widower forced to confront the emptiness of yearning for a lost love; the father who wants more for his two sons; the two sons, searching for the path to love (one from a supermodel, the other from his dad); a child who covets a toy and might have found something even better while saving up to buy it; and a stoner who must confront his inability to grow up.

Almost as quirky as the short stories on which it is based, “$9.99” is consistently amusing but rarely laugh-out-loud funny. The stop-motion animation used to bring the characters to life enables the filmmakers to achieve higher levels of absurdity but also distances the audience from the action on-screen, which is unfortunate.

The key to Mr. Keret’s short stories is finding something familiar in the absurd worlds he creates and applying it to one’s own existence. The stop-motion puppets used by Ms. Rosenthal (who also directed) put an extra strain on the already high suspension of disbelief required to accept the movie — you try watching two puppets have sex without getting taken out of the moment — detracting from the film’s immediacy.

Still, this is a solid feature containing some interesting ideas. There was some talk at the end of last year about “$9.99” emerging as a dark-horse candidate in the animated-feature category at the Academy Awards. Though that never materialized, such rumors are a testament to the caliber of the film and the subjects it broaches.

★★★

TITLE: “$9.99”

RATING: R (language and brief sexuality and nudity)

CREDITS: Directed by Tatia Rosenthal, written by Ms. Rosenthal and Etgar Keret

RUNNING TIME: 78 minutes

WEB SITE: http://www.9dollars99movie.com/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS