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‘iMordecai’ (review)

iMordecai is new film starring the recently Oscar nominated Judd Hirsch as the title character.

Mordecai is a Holocaust survivor but this isn’t a movie about the Holocaust. Mordecai’s wife suffers from dementia but this isn’t a movie about dementia. Mordecai has a complicated relationship with his son, but this isn’t a typical father/son drama either.

At its core, iMordecai is about Mordecai, a man finally coming to terms with the changes that come with old age in a heartwarmingly hilarious way. This is an unexpected comic gem you won’t soon forget.

The co-writer and director of iMordecai is Marvin Samel who is making his filmmaking debut with this film.

Samel is more than just a first-time director; he is essentially telling his own story with his iMordecai. He’s also a character in the film played by Sean Astin, but more on that later. Not only had Samel never directed a film before, he had never been on a film set at all.

But once his story began to unfold it became clear no one else could tell it but him.

I recently interviewed Marvin Samel about his experience working on such a personal story and how it came to fruition. “It should have been the best part of my life, my twin daughters were just born…next thing you know my mother is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and my father didn’t want to see it…I wrote this as a coping mechanism, I never had any intention of making it into a movie, but here we are…”

Samel, telling the story of his own family, had his work cut out for him in casting the lead role. “Judd Hirsch was always my first choice… we needed someone who was cantankerous with an underside of humanity, humility, and humor – who better than Judd Hirsch?” Samel recounted the tale of meeting Hirsch on the Upper East Side for pizza. Hirsch liked the story but was notably hesitant when he found out Samel would be directing.

As Hirsch turned to leave Samel jumped up and said, “Judd, my mother is dying, I promised her I’d make this film before she passed… and right then and there he shook my hand, and we made the deal.” Hirsch later asked Samel who was in mind for the part of Fela, Mordecai’s ailing wife. “I told him we want Carol Kane, and he yelled ‘She’s perfect!’.” He was right, she was. Kane turns in a heartbreakingly beautiful performance that never goes over-the-top and will rip at your heartstrings. Most people remember Hirsch and Kane from their first pairing forty years ago in their Emmy Award-winning turns on TV’s Taxi. Getting to watch them opposite one another all these years later feels like coming home again.

Samel still had to cast perhaps the hardest part of all – Marvin Samel. For that he turned to veteran actor Sean Astin of Rudy and Lord of the Rings fame. When I asked Samel why he chose Sean Astin he said, “Throughout his entire career, one underlying thing that comes out in every role Sean plays, is heart. Whether it’s Rudy, Samwise Gamgee, or even his part on Stranger Things, he’s got a lot of heart and I wanted someone to portray me going through the craziness I had while I put pen to paper.”

According to Samel, Astin got to witness the dynamic on set between real life father and son first hand. The real Mordecai apparently didn’t understand the age-old phrase: quiet on the set. “‘Dad! You need to keep quiet!’ I’d tell him. Sean used our dynamic between him and Judd.”

A handful of other actors round out the cast including Broadway stalwart Stephanie J. Block playing Marvin’s wife Netta, and newcomer Azia Dinea Hale who Samel describes as “a star in the making.” Hale as Nina has the herculean task of explaining an iPhone to Mordecai. Anyone ever trying to explain a smartphone to a parent can more than sympathize. Her scenes with Hirsch are some of the most endearing in a film full of endearing scenes.

Judd Hirsch recently earned his second Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for Stephen Spielberg’s The Fabelmans. His first came from another first-time director in Robert Redford’s Ordinary People back in 1980. Hirsch lost to his co-star Timothy Hutton that year but the film went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture. With the fate of this year’s Oscars not yet determined one thing is certain, Hirsch’s turn as Uncle Boris in The Fabelmans left us collectively wanting more.

Thankfully, iMordecai gives us just that. Hirsch’s Mordecai is a marvel. Although iMordecai was actually filmed before Spielberg’s opus, the release times being flip-flopped seems like kismet. Hirsch as Mordecai embodies an elderly man who despite turning eighty still finds, much to his chagrin, he has something left to learn.

I asked Samel what he has coming up next and he politely side-stepped the question, wanting to keep the development of his next project somewhat under wraps. But he did promise it would be “something completely different” from iMordecai. Whatever it is, I look forward to it.

The team behind iMordecai plans some talkbacks with filmmakers and cast in select cities throughout the country. It’s described as an immersive experience that can connect audience to the actors. Check out iMordecai at a theatre near you.

*  *  *  *  *
Produced by Dahlia Heyman, Marvin Samel 
Written by Rudy Gaines, Dahlia Heyman, Marvin Samel
Directed by Marvin Samel

Starring  Judd Hirsch, Carol Kane, Sean Astin, Nick Puga,
Azia Dinea Hale, Brandon Sirota, Mike Benitez, Ira Grossman



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