A new twist on the odd-couple trope brings Matthew Broderick and Géza Rhorig to the center of this exploration of grief. Rhorig's sensitive take on recently widowed Hasidic cantor Schmuel collides with Broderick's awkward underachieving professor-type in filmmaker Shawn Snyder's To Dust, a drama centered on death that also achieves the rare feat of being funny in the right dose.
Though the audience never sees her face, the absence of Schmuel's late wife is a character in itself—his inability to quickly let her go and move on is what defines him. When consultation with the rabbi does not settle his trouble, Schmuel seeks other counsel, ultimately landing in Albert's community college classroom. Albert (Broderick) is at first a reluctant partner in Schmuel's quest to understand the division between his wife's physical body and the freedom of her immortal soul.
As Schmuel tries to justify his orthodox beliefs with the earthly reality of decomposition, a series of unholy science experiments ensue, and the pair go on a bizarre journey. Broderick's deadpan desire for distance is soon replaced by a kinship of sorts, and the characters unfold just enough to tug on the heartstrings. While there's no doubt some stereotype about the sect of Judiasm is built in, the treatment of Schmuel's faith and his traditions feels more reverent than
Schmuel's sons (Leo Heller, Ready Player One, and Sammy Voit, The Americans) are splendid, attempting to solve their father's adult problem while coming to terms with their childish ones. Toss in a critical cameo from Natalie Carter and a bit of a melodramatic and kinda-sorta predictable twist in the end, and voila, existential crisis averted. Kinda-sorta.
We appreciate the choice of sparse, deliberate dialog and poignant cinematography, and we're relieved that there's nothing too slapstick, allowing the natural funniness of humans being human to come through. While Albert ostensibly is helping Schmuel, they both seem to be unhinged enough to value a new friend and perhaps learn some things.
+Poignant and tender; absurd hilarity
-Some suspension of disbelief required
Directed by Snyder
With Rhorig and Broderick
Jean Cocteau Cinema, R, 105 min.