FORT LAUDERDALE — What about the story of two seemingly unexceptional lives playing out quietly in Aventura, Florida, would attract the interest of two Academy Award nominees, inspire a historic reunion of the iconic TV series “Taxi” and end up on the big screen opening night of the 25th annual Miami Jewish Film Festival?
Based on the true story of 80-something Point East condominium residents Mordecai and Fela Samel, “iMordecai” initially bounces along as a comedy — taking off at Aventura Mall when his annoyed son forces Mordecai to trade in his flip phone for an iPhone, opening up new ways to miscommunicate and filling his head with beloved old klezmer music.
These scenes are built on a foundation of tragedy familiar to South Florida audiences — Mordecai and Fela are both Polish-born Holocaust refugees torn from their parents at a young age, haunting memories that ebb and flow throughout the film. Fela, less fluent in English, still seems particularly estranged from contemporary life.
But “iMordecai” and its exceptional lead actors, Judd Hirsch and Carol Kane, reach the peak of their persuasiveness and poignancy in the heartbreak of watching the couple struggle to hold on to each other as Fela slips behind the scrim of Alzheimer’s.
“Oh, it’s a love story,” Hirsch says by phone from his New York apartment. “Mordecai and his wife were extremely close. They loved having fun with each other as a pair of people. They sang songs together, right up to the end.”
A few months before filming began in Aventura and Miami in 2019, Fela Samel died from complications related to Alzheimer’s at age 83. Hirsch says Fela’s passing changed the way he and others involved in the movie approached the story.
Fela became a dominant focus of the film, aided by a wonderfully nuanced performance from Kane, an Oscar nominee in the 1975 immigrant drama “Hester Street” and an Emmy winner as Simka Dahblitz on “Taxi.”
“It’s billed as a comedy, but the real story, the real worthwhile-ness of it, is not how funny we can be, but how tragic it is,” says Hirsch, 86, also an Oscar nominee for “Ordinary People” in 1980. “His wife actually died. It became even more important to have her as the central object, to focus on the point where she simply walks away and doesn’t know where she is. Which is the basis for the whole movie.”
LOST AND FOUND
Fela was a well-known figure among shopkeepers at Aventura Mall, where she would exercise, walking and waving to them as she passed. In 2014 her son Marvin Samel, of Boca Raton, began getting calls from mall security that his mother seemed lost and disoriented.
When she was formally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, her distraught son threw himself into a project: cataloguing his family’s stories to prevent them from being lost to time and fading memory.
Gradually these recollections began to line up into a narrative, says Samel, then a cigar maker, now a business investor and consultant. With no formal training, he created a 30-page outline for a film.
“I’m writing just as catharsis,” Samel says of that time. But he did wonder if stories about his father — an affable, heavily-accented retired Brooklyn plumber negotiating life in the digital age — might have broader comedic appeal.
After dragging his father to the Apple store at Aventura Mall, Samel set him up with regular iPhone lessons at the Genius Bar.
“One day I snuck up on him to see how it was going, and I find him at the mall holding court with these kids,” sharing life lessons and stories about losing loved ones in World War II, Samel says. “I said, ‘That’s the avenue I need to take into this movie.’ ”
Discovering the iPhone (in the film through a Genius Bar employee played by Azia Dinea Hale) prompted “a spiritual awakening” in his father, Samel says.
“Once he got acclimated to the iPhone, started listening to all this klezmer music, he started painting. My mom would call me and say, ‘Every inch of this damn apartment is covered in paintings! I can’t take it anymore!’ ” Samel says, with a laugh.
While some details were tweaked, the best Mordecai stories went into the script unchanged, Samel says.
For instance, while working as a plumber in New York as a younger man, his father did create an alter-ego, twin brother Martin, so he could refer himself for jobs as a house painter. Mordecai carried business cards for both men.
The uncomfortably humorous “iMordecai” scene at Aventura Mall, in which he stumbles into one of his old painting clients from Brooklyn, who greets Mordecai as Martin, actually did take place at the mall outside Ben & Jerry’s, Samel says.
“I didn’t have to write a lot of this. These are stories that happened,” he says.
After a friend of a friend in the film industry encouraged Samel to pursue the film idea, a random conversation led him to screenwriting veteran Rudy Gaines.
After two years of rewrites with Gaines, a friend introduced Samel to award-winning producer Dahlia Heyman, who signed on with producer Allen Bain. They were soon joined by respected casting director Avy Kaufman (“Brokeback Mountain,” “Life of Pi”), who secured Hirsch and Kane, followed by Sean Astin (“Rudy,” “Lord of the Rings”), playing Samel.
After scouting around for a director, Samel says the producers recommended Samel himself as the best person to tell the story. Samel says he reluctantly agreed, calling it a “collaborative” shoot.
Some of the most poignant moments of “iMordecai” come when Kane, playing Fela, is illuminated by a rare smile. From the outset, before her disease is revealed, Fela is presented as a sturdy mix of suspicion, frustration and growing apprehension, a rock softened every so often by a look at her husband, her son or her grandchildren.
Samel says his Polish-born mother — who lost her father in WWII and worked as a matzoh roller in Brooklyn for more than 40 years — was not a person who smiled much.
Currently seen with Al Pacino in Amazon Prime’s Nazi-chasing conspiracy series “Hunters,” Kane brings a layered complexity to her role in “iMordecai.” In preparation, she studied video clips and photographs of Fela sent by her son.
Kane says she admired Fela’s bravery, both overcoming her experiences as a young person and in her battle with dementia.
“She was a real fighter. She was so herself, so unique and had her very strong opinions,” says Kane, 69. “I think their relationship was very honest. She was very powerful, and she happened to get Alzheimer’s. She was still a force and powerful, but sometimes not herself, you know?”
Kane’s grandparents were Jews from Russia and Austria, and she says that history informs a lot of her work, from “Hester Street” to Simka to “Hunters” and “iMordecai.”
“The story of my people, as we say, it resonates strongly for me,” Kane says. “It was there for me when I got to Fela.”
Hirsch didn’t have to look far for help: Mordecai was there for him, on the set, though Hirsch at first declined to meet him.
“I didn’t know what his opinion of me would be, what he would do to me,” Hirsch says with a laugh. “But, the first reading, in walks Mordecai. As soon as he walked in the door, I was hooked. I said, I want to spend my time with this guy. He’s funny, he’s good, he’s real. He’ll give me everything I need.”
Hirsch says he and Mordecai are still in touch, via the iPhone: “I make sure, birthdays, holidays, and whenever we think about it.”
“iMordecai” marks the first time Kane and Hirsch have appeared on screen together since the finale of “Taxi” nearly 40 years. Each won two Emmy Awards for their work on the show.
That is if you don’t count the Zoom screen, where “Taxi” cast members connect in a monthly reunion, Hirsch says. Along with Hirsch and Kane, regulars include Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Tony Danza, Marilu Henner and series co-creator James L. Brooks. Actors Andy Kaufman and Jeff Conaway are deceased.
“I was so happy that they got Carol [for “iMordecai”] because we know each other so well,” Hirsch says. “And underneath it all, we can have fun. Because that’s what we did in ‘Taxi.’”
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