“iMordecai” Oy Mordecai [MOVIE REVIEW]
Marvin Samel, director of “iMordecai,” wanted to honor his father with a personal family history. A cigar entrepreneur, Samel had been using his father as a punchline for years in the anecdotes he told during sales events he hosted. He realized he had a gold mine because his father’s stories were endless and when he sold his business, he went to work on his next project—Mordecai. Not hiding behind fictitious characters, Samel tells the story of his father, Mordecai Samel, mother Fela Samel, and himself. Set in Florida, Samel paints a picture of a family, while not exactly in crisis, floating in difficulty, conflict and denial.
The creative use of animation tells the early story of Mordecai and his parents who were able to escape from Poland in 1939 as the Nazis invaded. They fled across the Soviet border while the rest of the extended family remained behind, eventually perishing in Treblinka. Life wasn’t easy for the Samels in Russia. Mordecai’s father was sent to a gulag and Mordecai spent his youth in a Siberian orphanage. Still, they survived and eventually immigrated to Israel.
Cut to the present day and we meet an elderly Mordecai living in a retirement community making work for himself to fill his idle days. In Brooklyn he was a plumber and painter, self-taught he will interject, and he’s constantly looking for projects. His wife Fela indulges him even though it usually comes with great inconvenience. Son Marvin, who lives close by with his wife Netta and their kids, tries very hard to understand his father’s resistance to change but it’s a mystery. When Mordecai’s ancient flip phone, now covered in duct tape, finally dies, Marvin takes action and drags his father to the Tech store (standing in for the Apple Store) to purchase an iPhone. This is no easy sell and Mordecai leaves in a huff when he discovers that it is, as he says, a buttonless phone. How can he use a phone with no buttons?
But then he encounters a young, pretty, phone instructor leading a class on creating art with their new phones and he’s smitten. He’s not too sure about the phone but he is entranced with the charms and gentle persuasions of Nina, a young woman whose compassion for the elderly Jewish population is very pronounced. She also volunteers at the Jewish Community Center and assists Holocaust survivors in telling their stories. She knows that Mordecai has a story to tell when she learns that painting houses was not the only kind of painting that he did.
Fela, increasingly befuddled and seemingly in a fog, is not so sure about this Nina, convinced that she’s yet another predator like the widows in their complex always asking favors of her husband. But she isn’t merely confused, she is soon diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Mordecai is unprepared for this state of affairs. Fela can never be left alone and it is Mordecai’s responsibility to see that she’s cared for. His intentions are good but his execution is poor. With Nina, his world has opened up and he’s not ready or willing to give up his new found freedom and adventure to stay home and watch his wife. Mordecai has always been a universe unto himself. Fela was always his buffer zone to the outside world, especially with his son who he has always viewed as a disappointment. That Marvin is struggling to keep his business afloat is an added burden.
Mordecai, a force of nature, witnessed the hell of the Nazi invasion, lived through Soviet deprivation, saw the birth of Israel and their wars before moving to Brooklyn and starting over. He can’t understand why everyone else struggles when he’s just fine. But is he? And that is the unspoken question begging to be answered in this personal film.
Marvin Samel, the director, had help writing this very personal screenplay from Rudy Gaines and Dahlia Heyman. It was a noble effort but doesn’t rise to an exploration of the primary issue that I think is at the root of Samel’s narrative. Ostensibly he is telling the story about trying to bring his father into the modern world as exemplified by the use of an iPhone, the phone with no buttons. But this is actually the unexplored chronicle about survivor’s guilt.
It is no coincidence that Samel has peppered this scenario with minor characters who are Holocaust survivors. At the beginning one fleeting character makes reference to waiting for the arrival of her reparation payment, a monthly payment provided by the German government to some Holocaust survivors. When, and it’s rarely, Mordecai does talk about his family, he marvels at the luck of the draw, if you can call it that, that a tiny branch of his extended family fled to Russia while the rest stayed behind and perished. Perhaps Samel the director didn’t want to drag the comedic elements of his irrepressible father into the abyss of painful memory. He, no doubt, felt that glossing over the more important elements of history would darken the lightness of Mordecai’s survival as exemplified by his auto-didactic careers as a plumber, house painter, and artist.
And what of Fela? We know nothing about her and her journey. But then, again, the movie is called “iMordecai,” possibly a riff on all those self-referential films like “I Am a Hero,” “I Am Sam,” “I Am Greta,” “I, Anna,” “I, Tonya.” The “i” represents tech, but more specifically it represents the “I” unyielding to others.
Marvin Samel has painted a loving portrait of a complicated man, his father. He has no distance from this story and that prevents him from fully exploring the bigger issues. Certainly he gives passing references to Holocaust survivors, one of whom, when being interviewed, declared that she lived her life refusing to be a victim to her circumstances. That theme alone deserved exploration. Glossing over the importance of the past in the decisions of the present is a worthy investigation. The Mordecai we meet was certainly not a victim to his circumstances and lived his life to its fullest but he did so by burying an important aspect of his being. Like a comedian, Mordecai mines his own personal story for laughs by burying the pain. But this pain is largely unexplored, revealed secondarily in the marvelous animated segments detailing Mordecai’s early life.
As far as the real Marvin and the real Mordecai were concerned, they hit the jackpot with their doppelgangers. Judd Hirsch, using his exaggerated Eastern European Jewish accent, plays for stereotype revealing little inner vulnerability but lots of Borscht Belt schtick. I’d have preferred more depth and less cartoon in his characterization. Carol Kane as Fela has a greater grasp of her character and her relationship to her husband. Even in the fog of Alzheimer’s she displays an uncanny sense of loss. Sean Astin as Marvin Samel has a few good moments but primarily represents a foil for his father’s jokes and judgements.
This is certainly not “The Fabelmans” and Samel is definitely not a Spielberg. That being said, Samel, a complete novice, put forward a personal story that works in superficial ways but could have used more distance and a less biased eye. In the end, this film that had some promise, is shallow and, like Judd Hirsch’s character, a Catskill’s portrait that’s meant to leave you laughing but just leaves you. But then again, how often does someone get to honor his parents and have someone else pay for it?
Opening Friday, February 24 at the Laemmle Town Center 5.