While I'm not quite ready to say that the story behind iMordecai is better than the film itself. the truth is that this feel-good Greenwich Entertainment release does benefit from an almost larger than life feel-good background story that breathes life into its ordinarily extraordinary story.
Based on a true story, iMordecai is a comedy about a Holocaust survivor whose life changes when his son buys him an iPhone. In real life, that son is the film's first-time director Marvin Samel. The former owner of Drew Estate, one of the largest premium cigar companies in the world, Samel had never even set foot on a movie set before planting himself in the world of filmmaking on the first day on the set of iMordecai.
Samel taught himself filmmaking, in part, by taking online courses through MasterClass from the likes of Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard and Jodie Foster, a remarkable element that fuels the cinematic life of iMordecai.
It's a rather remarkable journey that led the entrepreneur Samel to largely self-finance this charming, feel-good story based upon his own life and that also stars two-time Emmy winner and current Academy Award nominee Judd Hirsch (The Fabelmans) as the feisty and endearing Mordecai himself. Now then, before I overly sell the film it's worth noting that despite its very real-life origin story, iMordecai is for the most part a paint-by-numbers feel-good flick with Samel's earnest yet fairly standard issue filmmaking that doesn't always find the right balance between the film's intended comedy and its more dramatic elements. However, any first-time filmmaker foibles aside, iMordecai more than lives into its audience pleasing cinematic persona that was evidenced by an Audience Award win at Miami Jewish Film Festival before its current limited theatrical release.
iMordecai doesn't delve deeply into Mordecai's Holocaust beginnings. An animated sequence, not entirely successful, gives life to the trauma of a young six-year-old whose life faces dramatic upheaval in the family home of Janów Podlaski, a small Polish town nearly centered between territory divided by Hitler and Stalin. However, those Holocaust beginnings serve as an undeniable foundation for the drama-tinged quirks and eccentricities of a man who would end up growing up in the U.S. and whose stories, often told by Mordecai's elder brother, will come to life in this film and through the lens of Mordecai's own real-life son, Marvin.
Filmed over 23 days in Florida in 2019, a year before Hirsch's now Oscar-nominated performance in The Fabelmans, iMordecai introduces us to Mordecai seventy-five years later as he's using a jackhammer to tear out the bathtub in his condo shower in order to install a walk-in shower for his increasingly incapacitated wife, Fela (Emmy Award-winner and Oscar nominated Carol Kane), whose diagnosis of Alzheimer's Disease is starting to have a more tangible impact on daily life. When Marvin (Sean Astin, Oscar nominee and SAG winner) is unable to get in touch with his father because the duct-taped flip phone he owns no longer connects, Marvin's journey to get his father an iPhone becomes the crux of the narrative for iMordecai.
While it may sound like iMordecai is set to be a walking advertisement for a certain beloved phone, beyond a few mentions this is overwhelmingly not the truth. Instead, iMordecai is overwhelmingly a walking advertisement for opening oneself to new things well into the elderly years and it's practically undeniable that the film serves as a love song for the South Florida where Marvin Samel now lives and where the film was shot. After an initial resistance to give up his flip phone, Mordecai ends up under the nurturing auspices of Nina (Azia Dinea Hale, F9: The Fast Saga), one of the iStore's Einsteins who begins teaching him 1:1 and whose own backstory adds depth and meaning to what could have easily been a caricaturish friendship.
While one may be able to argue some of the more formulaic filmmaking choices made here, there's little denying that Samel has surrounded himself by people who know the craft of filmmaking and by an ensemble clearly understanding the humanity and humor of this story. Hirsch, who I've also seen in both the family friendly Rally Caps and the critically acclaimed The Fablemans this year, reminds us yet again that he is a master of providing even the feistiest of characters with rich humanity and tremendous dignity. While under-utilized, Carol Kane makes the most out of playing Fela by infusing her with both the drama of living with Alzheimer's and the humor of living with Alzheimer's alongside Mordecai. Kane's is a beautiful performance and, quite honestly, perhaps the one I remember most here.
Sean Astin is always a dependable actor, typically unshowy even in the showiest of films and yet always grounded in honesty and reality. As a Jewish son whose conflicts with his father are always bubbling underneath the surface, Astin has clearly absorbed Marvin Samel's stories and brought his character wonderfully to life. As Nina, Azia Dinea Hale is perhaps the film's true revelation and shines brightly amidst all these stars.
Co-written by Samel with Rudy Gaines and Dahlia Heyman, iMordecai is a loving tribute to family, friendship, always evolving and, of course, South Florida. Lensing by Will Turner is bright and spirited and beautifully captures the story's Miami locale and is given even more spirit by Matthew Kajcienski's immersive original score.
Continuing on its current limited theatrical release, iMordecai is a light yet meaningful comedy that announces Samel may very well have himself a new career path if he so chooses. While he still has some things to learn, iMordecai is a beautiful start to wherever his life journey takes him next.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic