“Old age ain’t no place for sissies.” So Bette Davis famously opined, voicing a sentiment that could easily serve as a subtitle for “Abe & Phil’s Last Poker Game.” Written and directed by noted neurologist and award-winning documentarian Howard L. Weiner (“What is Life? The Movie”) as his debut dramatic feature, this low-key and deeply felt indie is unsentimentally blunt while addressing the humiliating debilitations that often define geriatric life. At the same time, however, it scrupulously eschews excessive grimness and shameless heart-tugging, and elicits more than a few laughs in the bargain, while focusing more often on how the title characters deal with last chances and unfinished business.
Of course, the movie comes with the baked-in emotional hook of being a showcase for the final screen appearance of Martin Landau, who passed away last July at age 89. So it’s likely, if not inevitable, that his portrayal of a proud and accomplished man in obvious physical decline will have a melancholy impact capable of coloring anyone’s response, positive or otherwise, to “Abe & Phil’s Last Poker Game.” But don’t let that keep you away: Landau’s performance here is a deftly calibrated thing of beauty, and it ranks among his finest work since his Oscar-winning turn as a frail Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood.”
Landau plays Dr. Abe Mandelbaum, an 83-year old retired cancer specialist who moves into Cliffside Manor, an assisted-living facility, to remain with his wife of many years, Molly (Ann Marie Shea). Because of her steady drift into dementia, she requires the sort of constant care he’s no longer capable of providing. But Abe himself remains sufficiently sentient to interact with others, and he quickly develops a friendship with Phil Nicoletti, a longtime resident vividly played with equal measures of hearty gallows humor and reluctant self-awareness by Paul Sorvino.
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There are some richly comical moments to be savored as Abe and Phil discuss — sometimes bawdily, sometimes regretfully, always honestly — their diminished sexual potency. (A nice touch: One of the men seizes the moment, with mixed results, when his virility is briefly jump-started.) But just when it seems like the film will unfold like an all-male version of D.L. Coburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “The Gin Game,” Weiner drops another character into the mix: Angela Donadio (Maria Dizzia), a thirtysomething nurse who befriends Abe and Phil — and who considers the possibility that one or the other is the father she’s never known, but has spent years searching for.
Weiner shrewdly (albeit a tad obviously) utilizes Angela as a sounding board for both men, drawing them into revelatory conversations and encouraging their better instincts. But the character proves to be something appreciably more substantial than a mere plot device, and Dizzia’s understatedly sympathetic performance very nearly places her on equal footing with her better-known co-stars. Better still, Angela literally gets the last word in the movie’s final moments, allowing “Abe & Phil’s Last Poker Game” to suggest that, yes, life really does go on.