Review: iMordecai — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

iMordecai is a wistful portrait of an aging Holocaust survivor whose son drags him to replace his decrepit flip phone with a shiny new one. This sets into motion a series of encounters that will enrich his entire life.

iMordecai (Greenwich Entertainment)

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⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Rating: PG-13

Run Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

Stars: Judd Hirsch, Carol Kane, Sean Astin

Writers: Rudy Gaines, Dahlia Heyman, Marvin Samel

Director: Marvin Samel

The thing I love most about this job is the element of surprise: Often I’ll sit down for a movie with a sigh, hoping for the best but not really expecting much — only to end up pleasantly blindsided.

That is precisely the sequence of mindsets I experienced with the comedy iMordecai, a wistful portrait of an aging Holocaust survivor named Mordecai (Judd Hirsch) whose son Marvin (Sean Astin) drags him, kicking and screaming, to replace his decrepit flip phone with a shiny new iPhone. The switch not only changes Mordecai’s telephonic experience, it also sets into motion a series of encounters that enrich his entire life, even as he pushes into his 80s.

Mordecai and his wife Fela (the always-astonishing Carol Kane) live in a Miami condo, where his defiant quirkiness — for instance, lugging a jackhammer into his apartment to re-do the shower — draws the consistent ire of the neighbors. Petulant and single-minded, Mordecai is also hauling around some pretty heavy emotional baggage: He is haunted by memories of his harrowing escape from Poland as a young boy after seeing his family shipped off to the death camps…and his beloved Fela is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

Perplexed by this new phone with no buttons on it, Mordecai enrolls in a tech class at the local Apple store (and if Apple CEO Tim Cook has not paid for product placement in iMordecai, then in all fairness he should stop what he’s doing and write a check right now). The instructor, an endlessly patient young woman named Nina (Azia Dinea Hale), takes a liking to Mordecai and lavishes extra attention on him — much to the dismay of Fela, who in her foggy mindset suspects the two are having a red-hot affair.

Now, dear reader, the seasoned film critic can often see these types of films coming from a mile away: Some veteran stars are sent a first-time script by a first-time writer/director (in this case, newcomer Marvin Samel, a former cigar maker). They don’t have much else going on at the moment, so they sign on for a quick shooting schedule in a pleasant locale, enjoy each other’s company for the duration, and then move on to better things.

iMordecai is clearly a passion project for Samel, who was inspired by the real-life story of his real-life father, the real-life Mordecai. Samel had never set foot on a movie set before the first day of shooting, and he had his A-list cast in Miami for just 23 days. I’ll spare you the litany of the many truly awful films wrought under similar circumstances — but against all odds, Samel — who says he studied filmmaking by watching online Master Classes — has birthed a lovingly crafted, sweetly nuanced tale of familial love.

Of course, it helps that he’s managed to enlist two of the screen’s most accomplished character actors in his cause. Hirsch’s Mordecai is a pretty close relative of Uncle Boris, the bombastic Eastern European Jew he would soon play in Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans (iMordecai was shot in 2019, prior to The Fabelmans). That Oscar-nominated turn packed a character’s lifetime of bellicosity into a 10-minute gem of a performance, and here Hirsch gets to unpack a similar psyche with artistic care.

Kane has made a career of playing quirky women who, beneath their flighty exteriors, harbor thoughtful, sometimes terrifyingly complex personalities. The role of Fela is especially tricky because Kane is called upon to balance her usual humorously off-kilter manner with the darker reality of a deteriorating mind. It’s no surprise we fall in love with Kane’s Fela almost immediately — the twist is that, as Fela slowly descends into dementia, she remains smartly funny and defiantly adorable.

An unapologetic love letter to the bonds of family and the value of friends old and new, iMordecai starts out as clamorous as a jackhammer in a condo bathroom, defuses its conflicts with the tonic of kindness, and ends with two old people arm-in arm in Coconut Grove — one lost in the past; the other relishing a future neither of them could ever have dreamed of.

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