'Abe & Phil's Last Poker Game': Film Review

Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures
Well-intentioned but tepid look at late-in-life yearning.
1/12/2018

The late Martin Landau co-stars with Paul Sorvino in Howard Weiner's drama.

Two men in an assisted-living facility are rejuvenated (sexually and otherwise) by the younger women they encounter in Abe & Phil's Last Poker Game, a gentle feel-good picture by writer-director Howard Weiner. Weiner, an accomplished neurologist, makes his feature debut here at the age of 72, and offers the kind of movie one might expect from a documentary with a very gentle bedside manner. More notable for film buffs is that this may be the last major screen role for Martin Landau, who played Abe (to Paul Sorvino's Phil) before his death last July at 89. Though hardly one of his more distinguished projects, the actor delivers with dignity in an uplift-oriented project.

Landau's Abe Mandelbaum has just moved to Cliffside Manor because the needs of his Alzheimer's-afflicted wife Molly (Ann Marie Shea) have become more than he can meet alone. So while Molly lingers in the couple's new apartment, having too few moments of clarity, Abe (that's "Dr. Mandelbaum," not "Mister," he keeps telling people) wanders the halls looking for neighbors whose minds have not faded.

He meets Phil, a salty character who claims to have bedded hundreds of women and to still remember all their names. Neither man has been active in who that department lately, and they bond over their nostalgia for the erections of yesteryear. Then, of course, things change.

Abe meets Sheryl (Pamela Dubin), a fiftysomething volunteer at the home, and finds himself, well, awakened. We might well dismiss the intimate encounters that follow as the usual big-screen male wish fulfillment (and Sheryl's part is less generously written than Abe's), but in the end it's a bit more complicated than that. Surprisingly, though, the movie never seems to wonder whether Abe feels he has cheated on his wife.

Another young woman at the hospital offers more than a last roll in the hay — a new nurse, Angela (Maria Dizzia), who was raised by adoptive parents and has reason to think her birth father may be living at Cliffside. After she admits this to Abe (who is quickly becoming the confessor to all around him), both he and Phil start to wonder if Angela might be the fruit of their loins.

However deeply affecting such affairs would be in the real world, here they play out with a light, Hallmark touch, each beat calculated to tug at, not yank on, heartstrings. Steven Argila's on-the-nose score emphasizes the family drama's lite-ness, and the only thing likely to keep a self-respecting cinephile watching is respect for Landau's work ethic. Presumably, Weiner was moved to make this autumnal stab at filmmaking by a desire to show aged characters as rounded human beings who retain the emotional vitality of their youths; accordingly, he films intimate moments without mockery or exploitation. (One encounter, between Abe and his wife, is even moving.) But the creativity doesn't match up to the ideals here, even if Abe & Phil does offer one of the better final scenes (a grace note, really) seen in recent indies.

Production company: Long Road Film
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Cast: Martin Landau, Paul Sorvino, Maria Dizzia, Ann Marie Shea, Pamela Dubin
Director-screenwriter: Howard Weiner
Producers: Marshall Johnson, Peter Pastorelli, Eddie Rubin, Howard Weiner
Executive producers: Walter Klenhard, Tamar Sela
Director of photography: Terrence Hayes
Production designer: Bridget Keefe
Costume designer: Sarah Hill Richmond
Editors: Andy Keir, Victoria Lesiw
Composer: Steven Argila
Casting directors: Sig De Miguel, Stephen Vincent

Rated R, 89 minutes