With “I’m A Mitzvah” writer/director Ben Berman and co-writer Josh Cohen have created something special: A story about the death of a friend which pushes through “Weekend At Bernie’s”-esque weirdness to offer some genuinely touching insights on friendship, loyalty and the joy of living. Clocking in at just under 20 minutes, “I’m a Mitzvah” stars Ben Schwartz as David, a fairly typical American bro stuck in rural Mexico after the untimely death of his friend and traveling companion, played, in a somewhat morbid turn, by the film’s co-writer Josh Cohen.
As the film opens, David is doing his best to convince the local morgue assistant (acted with deadpan perfection by Eastbound and Down‘s Erick Chavarria) that his recently deceased friend must not be embalmed, because “my friend is a Jewish man, and I don’t think Jews embalsamar.” While sorting through “Dead Cohen”‘s possessions, David appears unmoved, stopping only to try on Cohen’s glasses, and to copy a dick-pic from his camera – yes, this movie has a prolonged NSFW shot of a schlong. Sure, David is something of your standard issue douche, but he’s by no means a malicious one. At the urging of the distraught Mrs. Cohen, David loyally remains with his friend’s body for the next 24 hours after their flight back to the US is rescheduled. With time to kill in a small Mexican town, David is forced to self-examine his seemingly callous dispassion toward his friend’s death (That is to say, he googles “Stages Of Grief”) before ultimately setting out on the town – cadaver de Cohen in tow – to try and feel something, anything.
Schwartz, who excels as mega-dipshit Jean-Ralphio on NBC’s Parks and Rec is wonderful as David. While his character’s glib mannerisms and mumbly cadence remain unmistakably Schwartz-y, they are imbued here with flashes of emotional depth unlike any of Schwarz’s better-known roles. It’s as if David, even at most obtuse, is aware of his inability to fully block out the profound sadness of a friend’s death, no matter how much he tells himself he’s alright.
As for the titular “Mitzvah” here? It’s left ambiguous. Is it David’s staying alongside the body of his friend, as is traditionally prescribed by Jewish law? Is it his (mild spoiler here) his ultimate acceptance of his friend’s death, and the subsequent rush of emotions that follow? Possibly both. Possibly neither. Cohen and Berman never give us a straight answer, and “I’m a Mitzvah” is all the better for it.
“I’m A Mitzvah” has been named an official selection of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. You can watch it, in full, here: