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With: David Wenham, Frances O'Connor, Sarah Wynter, Robert Menzies, David Roberts, Nicole Nabout, Joanna Hunt-Prokhovnik, John Flaus, Terry Norris, Julia Blake
Written by: Robert Connolly and Elliot Perlman, based on the novel by Elliot Perlman
Directed by: Robert Connolly
MPAA Rating: R for language, some sexuality and brief violence
Running Time: 118
Date: 04/21/2005

Three Dollars (2006)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Small Change

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In Hollywood movies like Click and The Devil Wears Prada, characters get to keep their ideals without worrying about the poorhouse. But in the new Australian film Three Dollars, 38 year-old Eddie Harnovey (David Wenham) has reached a turning point in his job: his ideals and a steady paycheck are in direct opposition.

When they were younger, he and his wife-to-be Tanya (Frances O'Connor) had little to worry about but the genius of Joy Division's music and the issue of whether or not a woman could play Hamlet. Now, however, Tanya has lost the scholarly grant that allowed her to continue to work on her thesis. And their daughter Abby (Joanna Hunt-Prokhovnik) has contracted a form of epilepsy.

Eddie works as a chemical engineer who samples land for hazardous substances before developers can begin building. He receives pressure to sign off on the latest job, a project by one of the country's richest and most powerful men, even though he has found traces of deadly toxins. In the middle of everything Eddie has an almost supernatural connection with someone called Amanda (Sarah Wynter) -- who also happens to be the rich and powerful developer's daughter. Though they've never been lovers, they serendipitously run into one another every nine and a half years.

Based on a novel by Elliot Perlman -- who also co-wrote the screenplay with director Robert Connolly (The Bank) -- this complex web of events, ideas and emotions plays rather nicely for quite a while. The movie manages to suggest, rather than announce, that ideals will only get us so far in this world. At some point, everyone has to eat. In this vein, Three Dollars continually conjures up messy, unresolved moments that move with the rhythm of life.

In one sequence, Tanya's friend Kate (Nicole Nabout) fights with her boyfriend and comes to stay with the Harnoveys. One late night, while Tanya is gone, Kate and Eddie drink wine and listen to music. Eddie falls asleep on the couch, wakes up after a nightmare and finds himself kissing Kate. In a Hollywood movie, this would be a plot point, leading to some terrible climax. Here, it's a mistake, but not a fatal one, and it doesn't really lead anywhere. It's just another bump in this ragged road.

Unfortunately, the movie seriously goes off track in the final quarter. The problem begins because Three Dollars succumbs to one of the laziest trends in movies: stuck for a slam-bang opening, the movie simply flashes forward to an exciting moment from the three-quarter mark. We then flash back to the actual beginning of the story -- the boring one -- and when we arrive at the three-quarter mark again, the story just continues, as if everything were moving on the same linear path. There is no full circle. You'd be surprised how many movies attempt this lame trick.

It's at this point, when Eddie loses his job, that the movie also turns maudlin and awkward, wallowing in apathy and self-righteousness. (That same day, before he even goes home to his wife or prints out a new resume, a bum teaches him how to dig through garbage cans.)

Nevertheless, Wenham -- perhaps most recognizable from his roles in The Lord of the Rings and Moulin Rouge! -- perseveres in his role, pulling off the tough job of playing a nice guy without losing his manliness. But the real miracle is Frances O'Connor, who has never really registered any kind of critical notice here in the States, aside from appearing in the occasional critical favorite like Mansfield Park (1999) or A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). In Three Dollars, she comes up with something extra. She reads her dialogue in subtle layers, adding bits of her own love and pain in-between lines. To put it simply, she makes Tanya live. (She was nominated for the Australian equivalent of an Oscar, the AFI award, but lost.)

It's sad when such a smart movie loses its way so badly. You want to pause it, take it by the hand, and guide it back on track again. But for 90 minutes out of its two hours, Three Dollars is worth seeing.

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