Film Review: Abe & Phil’s Last Poker Game

Tale of two elderly nursing-home residents focuses too obsessively on one particular male malady.
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There’s never been a movie quite like this one.

For starters, Abe & Phil’s Last Poker Game was written, directed and produced (and perhaps financed?) by a 73-year-old, Harvard-based neurologist and immunologist whose clinical research focuses on Alzheimer’s, Multiple Sclerosis and other neurological diseases, and who has produced only one other film, a documentary called What is Life?.

There’s more: Dr. Howard L. Weiner’s first-ever narrative script features a storyline that delves deeply into the diminished sexual capacity and a few other physical degradations suffered by men of advanced age. Early on, for instance, a nursing-home aide sticks a few fingers into a jar of Vaseline, rolls over one of the elder, bedridden residents in her care and—well, let’s just say her fingers take aim at him below the belt and from behind. Geez.

It’s the Vaseline scene that introduces Angela (Maria Dizzia) a wary (to say the least) nurse intern who has come to work at this particular nursing home, Cliffside Manor, because she’d received an anonymous tip that her long-lost birth father could be among the residents there. She soon meets two prime candidates: Abe (the late Martin Landau) a retired doctor in his early 80s, and the slightly younger Phil (Paul Sorvino), who has led the fast life of a womanizer and gambler.

Although the story here is ostensibly about Angela’s search for her father—which may or may not be eventually resolved—Last Poker Game is really about these two old geezers and their inability to get it up. Well, Abe does manage that first big step in reclaiming his sexuality, but when it’s time to deliver—with a blonde and attractive, forty-something “volunteer” at the nursing home, well, they’re both disappointed. No surprise.

Abe, of course, has a wife, Molly, played by Ann Marie Shea, and they only recently moved into Cliffside Manor because he could no longer handle her primary care. Molly has Alzheimer’s, and Shea is given the incredibly difficult job of portraying some of the most delicate and difficult aspects of elderly dementia. For she too feels a need for unabashed sex, you see, although for her it’s easier—as long as she can enlist the help of her frustrated husband.

There are, of course, many, many serious—and funny—aspects of aging that need to be discussed in our youth-obsessed society, so it’s rather unfortunate that Abe & Phil’s Last Poker Game focuses on only one of them—the one that men, in particular, fear the most. It’s unfortunate too, that this film stands as Martin Landau’s last screen performance. He was one of Hollywood’s great character actors, a professional in every way, so he does a brilliant job playing Abe. The same can be said for Paul Sorvino as Phil—both are wonderful here. And both, as noted, are (or were) themselves men of a certain age, as is Dr. Weiner. So, perhaps they found it helpful that a medical man could so boldly confront one of their main worries.

However, older people do not really need to be told what they’re going through, and younger people probably aren’t ready to be shocked like this into facing what’s ahead. Maybe it’s best to cinematically ease into the realities of aging—and maybe the Hippocratic Oath could be amended so that medical doctors who decide to make movies are prohibited from telling the rest of us everything they know.

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