What Price Happiness?


Only "$9.99" for The Meaning of Life?

A bargain!

But don't discount the dynamics of hurt and hope in delivering that happiness. And "$9.99" — the amazing stop-motion animation directing debut of Israeli-born Tatia Rosenthal — stops one in its very tracks as it traces the litmus test of dreams on a motley mix of apartment dwellers.

The first Australian-Israel movie co-production — sabra mates with brio on the barbie — "$9.99" is as low-budget as its title suggests (without really looking it). But the wealth of wit/wizardry it encapsulates as it winks at the human condition is priceless.

Based on short stories (and co-written with director Rosenthal) by Israel's Etgar Keret, this 18-karat co-production — with design elements of Bauhaus architecture from Tel Aviv and the sassy style of Sydney, with a touch of New York toughness thrown in — interweaves idiosyncratic complex comic characters, including an earthbound angel who's earned his wings but remains as homeless as he had been before death.

"$9.99" is booked to begin July 31 at the Ritz at the Bourse, but unlike the marked-down price of the self-help tutorial upon which it's based, this is no bargain-bin remnant.

Filmmaker Rosenthal not so much turns the page on her career as starts it; the New York University film-school grad has been working on her major motion -picture debut for a number of years with Keret, who so coveted her prototype film "Crazy Glue" that he stuck his reputation on to her nascent talent to collaborate.

What price happiness? "There really is no price," "$9.99" notwithstanding, says Israeli-born Rosenthal.

But she's found it on her own terms as Hollywood now has slid down its sunglasses to take a look at this brilliant independent star-turn.

Anyone "Looking for Eric," however, may have a harder time of it.

In a cheap shot taken at "$9.99," prominent Brit director Ken Loache has proven louche; reportedly decrying Israel's "illegal occupation of Palestinian land, destruction of homes and livelihoods," he's withdrawn his film, "Looking for Eric," from Melbourne's major film fest simply because Rosenthal's flick was "sponsored" by Israel — the government paid for her airfare to Australia.

Aussies and asses don't mix; the festival director, calling Loache's blaggard act a decidedly blatant attempt at "blackmail," wouldn't budge a bit.

Loache left; "$9.99" became the prix fixe.

Not that anyone watching it would know whether to take this film at face value in Aussie dollars, Israeli shekels or greenbacks.

"Is it an Australian, Israeli or American film? It's a very cosmopolitan film," says the filmmaker who made it.

Strange things happen to the quirky characters, but then, what can be stranger than reality?

Australia was brought into the motley mix when a movie wizard of Oz, producer Emile Sherman, was on holiday in Tel Aviv, tellingly interested in meeting Keret, of whom he was a fan.

Koalas and camels?

The script was read, financing then scraped together. Not such unusual footwork for such an unusual film feat.

After all, "there is an element of estrangement to it," concedes Rosenthal of a film "with Australian accents, and use of puppets."

Not to mention the shot in the dark opening — in which the Angel/Homeless Man, voiced by Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush, puts his life on the line not for $9.99, but for a buck for a cup of coffee.

"He is giving society one last chance," explains Rosenthal, "a chance that goodness prevails" and that he will receive it.

Bite the bullet? He does — and more so.

But the biting wit that prevails is made even more masterly mordant by the element of magic realism prevalent in the script and Keret's creative writings.

Add a Latin American flavor to the cosmopolitan flair that spices the film since Rosenthal admits she is a big fan of Nobel Prize-winning writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who whet "my appetite for it."

Whet and wild?

Ultimately, as discovers the straight-laced character of Jim (Anthony LaPaglia) — who finds the water is fine when he abandons the rigors of regret and learns to swim like a dolphin — hope does float.

"Or," laughs Rosenthal at the suggestion, "in his case, jumps out of the water."

This film has jump-started a promising career. But what would have happened at the start had the homeless man, asking for a buck for the coffee, received it?

"Well," muses the amused protean director with the suddenly caffeinated career and a perky sense of humor, " I guess that would have been the end of the movie."


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