Review: ‘iMordecai,’ starring Judd Hirsch, Carol Kane, Sean Astin, Stephanie J. Block and Azia Dinea Hale

March 8, 2023

by Carla Hay

Azia Dinea Hale and Judd Hirsch in “iMordecai” (Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment)


Directed by Marvin Samel

Culture Representation: Taking place in Miami, the comedy/drama film “iMordecai” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latin people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Against the wishes of his wife, a Holocaust survivor secretly befriends an iPhone salesperson, who teaches him how to use his iPhone, while he has a tension-filled relationship with his son. 

Culture Audience: “iMordecai” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching family-oriented comedy/drama movies about real-life Holocaust survivors, even if many of the scenarios in the movie look very fake.

Stephanie J. Block and Sean Astin in “iMordecai” (Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment)

The disjointed comedy/drama “iMordecai” is based on a true story, but this dull movie looks more like fragmented segments of a very phony sitcom. Even with the talents of Judd Hirsch and Carol Kane, “iMordecai” is undone by misguided filmmaking. It’s one of those movies where a family member’s quirks are supposed to look charming and cute to people who watch the movie. But that’s where “iMordecai” has a big disconnect with authenticity, because in the real world, those quirks would be very annoying and bizarre.

Marvin Samel makes his feature-film debut as a director, co-writer and producer of “iMordecai,” a movie that he made about his family. The movie’s title character, Mordecai Samel, is played by Hirsch and is based on Marvin Samel’s real-life father. Marvin Samel co-wrote the maudlin “iMordecai” screenplay with Rudy Gaines and Dahlia Heyman. It’s a film that takes serious subjects, such as the Holocaust and dementia, and downplays them for the sake of creating some trite comedic moments in the film. Other problems experienced by the movie’s characters are resolved in very sitcom-like ways.

There’s really not much depth to the plot of “iMordecai,” which has irritating repetition of this theme: “Look at how quirky this old man is and how he and his son have problems in their relationship.” Mordecai is married to his longtime wife Fela (played by Kane), who is a harmless and passive oddball. Marvin (played by Sean Astin) is married to his devoted wife Netta (played by Stephanie J. Block), and they are the parents of infant twin daughters (played by Yosef Friedman and Ari Friedman). These wives are often sidelined in the story, just to contrive another scenario where Mordecai and Marvin clash with each other. Fela is diagnosed with having a form of dementia, but her dementia is barely addressed in the movie until it is used to set up an emotionally manipulative turning point in the story.

In “iMordecai,” which takes place in Miami, Mordecai is a retired plumber who stubbornly thinks that he can fix any plumbing problems, anywhere, at any time. Near the beginning of the movie, Marvin (who is the only child of Mordecai and Fela) goes to visit his parents at their high-rise apartment building. Marvin sees Mordecai is using a jackhammer to install a walk-in shower for Fela. The apartment looks like it was hit by a bomb, which is an indication that Mordecai doesn’t really know what he’s doing.

Later in the movie, in another sitcom-ish scenario, Marvin goes to visit Mordecai and finds Mordecai on a residential street, digging a hole in the grass on a sidewalk. The sidewalk is mostly likely the property of the city, and Mordecai most likely doesn’t have a permit to do this digging. But that doesn’t matter in this movie, because it’s all a setup to show Mordecai damaging a water main, which sends a gush of water flying into the air. Marvin predictably gets upset, and Mordecai acts like Marvin is just being uptight. And then, they have an argument that looks straight out of a low-quality sitcom.

Throughout the movie (whose pacing often drags and will test the patience of people looking for less flimsy repetition and more substance), scenarios are presented over and over where it’s obvious that the “iMordecai” filmmakers want viewers to think, “Oh, look at wacky Mordecai. There he goes again with his quirky antics. Isn’t he adorable?” But many of his antics are too irresponsible for someone of Mordecai’s age (he was born in 1933), and they aren’t very adorable at all.

Marvin isn’t exactly a responsible adult either. He owns a cigar company that is financially struggling, and he’s been lying to members of his family about it. Marvin has maxed out his credit cards to keep the company afloat. He irresponsibly doesn’t tell Netta until she sees a bill for a maxed-out credit card that she didn’t even know Marvin had. Marvin also can’t get any more bank loans.

Netta is worried because she and Marvin couldn’t pay their house’s mortgage for the previous month, but Marvin assures her that everything will work out for them. He tells Netta that he will take care of everything. Marvin sells his car, but that’s barely enough to pay off his debts, so he eventually decides to sell the cigar company.

Marvin has been hiding his money problems from his parents because he’s already borrowed $50,000 from Mordecai for the cigar company, and Marvin doesn’t want to ask Mordecai to borrow more money or for help in paying off Marvin’s debts. The movie then goes into a tangent that Marvin thinks Mordecai is a financial jinx for Marvin, ever since Mordecai interrupted a poker game that Marvin lost when Marvin was a teenager and playing poker with some of his buddies. The movie has a flashback to this poker game, and it’s not as funny as it was probably intended to be. (Simon Lee has the role of a teenage Marvin.)

Early on in the movie, Marvin brings Mordecai and Fela to a phone store at a local shopping mall to get Mordecai a new iPhone, because the flip phone that Mordecai has been using is worn down, barely functioning and hopelessly outdated. At the store, Mordecai meets a sales representative named Nina (played by Azia Dinea Hale), who is friendly and helpful. Nina has a co-worker named Jared (played by Nick Puga), who is an iPhone specialist. Jared is also an aspiring stand-up comedian, which becomes a weak subplot used as a setup for Mordecai to get on stage and interrupt Jared’s stand-up act when Jared flops in his stand-up routine.

Nina offers to give Mordecai private lessons to learn how to use an iPhone. The problem is that Fela is deeply superstitious about iPhones and other smartphones. Fela calls an iPhone a “brainwashing device” and says it’s “like Stalin.” “iMordecai” then becomes a tedious back-and-forth narrative: Nina and Mordecai have secret meetings where they get to know one another as friends, while Marvin tries to close a business deal for the sale of his cigar company to a potential buyer named Fernando Vazquez (played by Mike Benitez), who has a fateful chance encounter with Mordecai. (You can easily predict how this encounter affects the business deal.)

Eventually, Mordecai and Nina spend time together for platonic companionship that has nothing do with her giving him iPhone lessons. During a trip to the artsy Wynwood area of Miami (which has a lot of public art on display, such as murals), Mordecai tells Nina that he’s a painter artist. You can almost do a countdown to a scene where Nina inspires Mordecai to start painting again.

Mordecai (who was born in Poland) also tells Nina more details about his life, such as how the Holocaust affected his family, some of whom escaped to Russia, while others died in a concentration camp in Poland. The flashbacks to Mordecai’s childhood are shown as animation. Meanwhile, Nina has a secret that she’s afraid to tell Mordecai: Her recently deceased paternal grandfather used to be a Nazi guard at a concentration camp. You don’t have to be a genius to guess which concentration camp it was.

Although it’s possible this strange coincidence could have happened in real life, it looks very contrived and cringeworthy in “iMordecai,” which treats the Holocaust and how it affected Mordecai’s family in a glib way that’s very off-putting. And did we mention that Nina is also a volunteer at a local Jewish community center? She’s also estranged from her parents, for reasons that aren’t really made clear in the movie. However, it’s mentioned that Nina unfairly blames her parents (especially her father) for not telling her about her paternal grandfather’s Nazi past, even though Nina herself says that the grandfather kept it a secret from his American descendants. The secret was discovered only after he died, and his Nazi possessions were found.

The movie also has a weird tangent about Mordecai revealing that he when he was younger and working in Brooklyn, New York, he pretended that he had an identical twin brother named Martin, who was a building painter. Mordecai even had a separate business where he posed as Martin being a professional painter. It’s supposed to be an endearing joke in “iMordecai,” but the movie never gives a good reason for why Mordecai would go to such lengths for such an unnecessary lie. Apparently, Mordecai deceived customers for years with this fraud. It makes him look mentally ill, but the movie brushes it off, as if Mordecai’s elaborate deception is perfectly acceptable and not a sign of serious mental health issues.

There are so many ways that “iMordecai” rambles and wanders in the story, that it all becomes tiresome after a while. The movie has too many instances of people talking and acting very unrealistically, even though Hirsch puts in a commendable effort to make his character believable. The other cast members are serviceable in their roles, while Kane continues to be typecast as an eccentric who lives in her own world. The movie reaches a point where viewers will start to see “iMordecai” for what it is: a vanity project about a family that isn’t nearly as interesting or amusing as the “iMordecai” filmmakers want viewers to think the family is, while some serious issues are made trivial for the sake of trying to get cheap laughs.

Greenwich Entertainment released “iMordecai” in select U.S. cinemas on February 24, 2023. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on April 11, 2023.

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