Review: 'To Dust'

A Hasidic Jew finds a bit of comfort in the inevitability of decay
Matthew Broderick and Geza Rohrig star in a dark comedy about death, dying and religion.

Morbid, but in a good way, Shaun Snyder's droll To Dust is a slightly attenuated but strangely likable comedy about decay. It's cheerful, like the office conversations between the grave-digging knaves in Hamlet. In Staten Island, grieving ultra-orthodox Jew, Shmuel (Geza Rohrig), is obsessed with the thought of his dead wife decomposing in the ground.

He is unconsoled by the advice given to the Jews—from the time of Job to today—that one must accept the will of the divine. He is to rend his garments, observe the prescribed time of mourning, and then move on. But in visions devised by the stop-motion animator Robert Morgan, Shmuel is wracked by bad dreams of his wife's rotting body.

Shmuel could have used a copy of Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death or Mary Roach's Stiff to answer his questions. Having neither book, he wanders into a funeral home. The salesman (Joseph Siprut), at first euphemistic and then frank as hell, assures him that customers are going to look "pristine and picturesque" at their funeral. After that, "We don't check their progress."

Getting nowhere, Shmuel imposes himself on Albert (Matthew Broderick), a junior college Biology 101 professor, to seek specifics about the speed of bodily breakdown. All Albert has around the classroom is a book, showing the time-lapse decomposition of a piglet. (That he only has the example of an unclean animal to suggest the speed of decay is part of the humor.)

This timid foreigner Shmuel—the half-stoned Albert misunderstands the name as "Shmell"—is smarter than the slow learners in Albert's class, who are too dumb to understand what a biosystem is. Unfortunately, Shmuel is like a dog that looks at the finger instead of what that finger points at. Thus he acquires a whole dead pig to be buried in the woods so he can study it breaking down over the weeks. "This is a mockery of science!" Albert bleats, as if Dr. Frankenstein had solicited his aid.

Snyder's material plays like a Jewish version of John Guare, starting funny and getting funnier. More profane than sacred, Snyder studs the film with f-bombs.

To Dust could be accused of stretching out a slim premise. It has the downside of the kind of farce that would be over faster if the people in the movie just spoke plainly. Shmuel doesn't state his business: There is a defensible, and tender, reason for his obsession with his wife's decomposing. But he doesn't blurt this out until the film is halfway through.

The dissembling continues when Albert and Shmuel travel to a body farm in Tennessee. This is a real thing—there are six in the U.S. alone—a place where donor cadavers are exposed to the elements to give coroners data to solve the riddles of suspicious death. Albert pretends he is an acquaintance with the scientist who ran the place in order to get inside, then fakes recognition when he peers into a box of bones: "Hey, old timer!"

A comedy like this functions or fails depending on the way the pair get and stay together; Broderick and Rohrig have a harmony in their matched styles in forlornness. Broderick probably hasn't been this good since he played a similarly odd scientist, Richard Feynman, in 1996's Infinity. Rohrig—obsessing over the funerary rites, as he did when he played the concentration camp inmate in Son of Saul—sometimes recalls David Cross. His nebbishy take on the character has room for moments of comic exasperation, as when he hears a nice Southerner tell him in passing, "Jesus loves you."

Less compelling is the subplot about Shmuel's two children, who believe that their father's obsessions reveal that Shmuel is inhabited by a dybbuk (as per the pre-title sequence in the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man). Emulating the Hardy Boys, the kids stay up late to see a film they're not supposed to watch, the 1937 Polish film version of The Dybbuk. The clips of this romantic, expressionist tale add to the film's gentleness.

Snyder's comedy with tragic overtones is a particularly urbane study of the dialogue between science and faith. That we are dust and unto dust we will return is both the most inarguable part of scripture, and yet thoroughly proven by science.

To Dust
R; 105 Mins.
3Below Theaters & Lounge, San Jose

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