Review: Simon Pegg Aims to Debunk a Small Town Frenzy in Nandor Fodor and the Talking Mongoose

Today, we call them debunkers. But in the early decades of the 1900s, they were paranormal psychologists, who spent their time investigating claims of paranormal activity, almost always resulting in finding out the instances were faked. Harry Houdini made a name for himself doing this (and a bit of magic). And when we meet the famed, London-based Dr. Nandor Fodor (Simon Pegg, sounding a lot like Christoph Waltz) in the based-on-a-true-story Nandor Fodor and the Talking Mongoose, he is being recruited by another well-known scientist (Christopher Lloyd) in 1935 to visit a farm in the English countryside where a family claims to have among its animals a mongoose named Gef that doesn’t just mimic human speech (like certain birds), but actually holds conversations with people. Gef is voiced by esteemed author Neil Gaiman, so it must be true.

The film opens with two prologues. The first is a documentary of sorts about the history of so-called “talking” animals; the second is a radio interview Dr. Fodor does about belief. The interviewers ask Fodor whether ghosts exist and whether he believes in them, which Fodor is quick to point out are two very different questions, delivering a gripping monologue about the distinction. When we finally dive into Fodor’s day-to-day life, we find out he has a loyal assistant named Anne (Minnie Driver), who, among other things, goes through his mail to weed out any potential opportunities for paranormal investigation and discrediting those who send him ghost photos or accounts of particularly unnerving seances. But when the letter from Dr. Harry Price (Lloyd) arrives, he jumps at the chance to sit down for drinks to discuss the talking mongoose.

Before long, Fodor and Anne are headed to the Irving farm, led by Mr. Irving (Tim Downie), with his wife (Ruth Connell) and teen daughter Voirrey (Jessica Balmer), who coincidentally has a talent for throwing her voice. Already, Fodor smells a deception. Gef is easily spooked, only tends to be heard from behind walls through peep holes, and is rarely actually seen, even by those who converse with him regularly. The family’s farm is successful, so they aren’t trying to capitalize on the strange creature living in their midst. Some think Gef is more spirit than animal, which is why Fodor is interested in investigating.

While many of the signs of actual proof that Gef is a mongoose and can speak are absent from Fodor’s pursuit of the truth, he does eventually hear the animal not just speak, but also present facts that no one should know, such as the last words Fodor’s recently departed father said to him before he died. It’s also claimed that Gef recites poems before they were ever published and regularly predicts the future with alarming accuracy. But he’s never been filmed or photographed, other than as a blur. And everyone in the town around the farm believes Gef is real, although few, if any, have laid eyes on him. The town drunk Maurice (Paul Kaye) and the farm’s caretaker Errol (Gary Beadle) more or less accept that Gef probably isn’t real, but believing in him seems to bring a lot of people comfort. Plus, his words always seem to strike people profoundly, and that everyone can hear.

Writer-director Adam Sigal (Chariot) lays on his religion metaphor pretty thick, and you don’t have to tilt your head too far in any direction to see the messages about faith vs. science. All Fodor wants is to find out why so many people would buy into what he believes is an obvious bit of trickery, but in an early scene, we find out that the reason the good doctor is so intent on getting to the truth of these unusual encounters is because he wants one of them to be true just once. Pegg’s performance is quite engaging and a bit sad, especially in those moments that he realizes that he’s something of a pariah in the scientific community, and a paper about the supposed mass hysteria in this farming community might be just the thing to bring him back into the celebrated mainstream.

I don’t need every film I see to have a point, and as engaged as I was with the material most of the time, Nandor Fodor and the Talking Mongoose does enter the realm of pointless most of the time. It has a few moments of light humor, even a possible romance between the doctor and Anne, but none of that really amounts to much. The movie also has one of the strangest series of actor interviews during the credits as you’re likely to see this or any year. If you’ve ever watched a blu-ray extra or jokey interview with an actor on YouTube, you might not be as shocked by it, but it’s still quite odd to be included here. Perhaps the film’s greatest trickery is including a flashback sequence of Harry Houdini doing some debunking of his own and having the legend played by an actor I thought was a de-aged Ben Kingsley (it turns out to be his lookalike son, Edmund Kingsley). It’s a helluva trick, and makes the other mystifying parts of this movie pale in comparison.

The film is now in theaters, and will be available to buy or rent digitally on September 19.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.