A movie doesn’t need big fancy visuals or the most striking directorial style in order to be engaging. If the writing is sharp enough and the actors properly cast, that is all one needs. A movie going this route fares best when it is telling a simple story with a focus on the characters and their arcs. Abe And Phil’s Last Poker Game is precisely that kind of movie.
Writer/ director Howard Weiner’s narrative debut is about Abe (Martin Landau) and his wife, Molly (Ann Marie Shea), moving into an assisted living home, mainly because of Molly’s worsening dementia. There they make friends with Angela (Maria Dizzia), a young nurse searching for her birth parents, Phil (Paul Sorvino), a blunt, take-no-prisoners larger than life kind of guy, and Sheryl (Pamela Dubin), who excites Abe in ways that he hasn’t felt in years. That is kind of it as far as the story is concerned, straightforward and simple.
“Molly’s slow descent into unreality as she gets worse is very well realized…”
The characters, with one exception, are all very dynamic and realistic. Abe isn’t as forthcoming with his thoughts on sex or emotions as Phil, and it is easy to see why someone who embraces life the way Phil does would entice the more bottled up resident. For his part, Phil needs a sounding board and someone to live vicariously through, now that cancer and other ills have slowed him considerably. Their friendship seems natural, and both give each other something important. Molly’s slow descent into unreality as she gets worse is very well realized, seemingly culled from firsthand experience. Angela’s search for her parents is subtle and interesting, never becoming the only thing about the character. Sheryl’s reasons for being at the home are humorous and sad, and again seem to be pulled straight from real life (full disclosure, I use to work at an assisted living home, and I have seen patients be there due to other issues aside from physical/ aging; and the writing for Sheryl captures that succinctly).
The only character that does not work is the director of the home, Grollman (Alexander Cook). Abe asks Grollman why he chose to work at the home, and Grollman answers that he hates old people. Now, he never becomes a Nurse Ratchet kind of person, but it is odd and off-putting. Grollman also convinces Phil that the booze he was caught drinking was actually an age-defying, cancer cure. What? Huh? There is a scene later on that contextualizes this more, but it still does not work, and the character seems to have come over from a different sort of movie entirely.
“…a celebration of life, just before that life is set to expire.”
For the dearly departed Landau, it is one of his best performances in ages, and an incredible final display of what made him such a beloved icon. A sequence in which Abe demands that special accommodations be made for his wife’s fur coat, one of the only things that can calm her when she’s in a dementia state, is played with absolute conviction and the audience is entirely on Abe’s side. Sorvino is not slouching on the job either, as he commands the screen and space as only he can. The viewer likes and empathizes with Phil, despite his abrasive demeanor, cheating ways, and high demands. That is due to the writing and Sorvino playing the quieter moments at full vulnerability. The chemistry between Sorvino and Landau is incredible, and this only strengthens the bond. It is their show, and both are clearly in top form, gliding between the comedic moments to the drama with ease.
Maria Dizzia is charming and earnest, and her interactions with the residents at the home feel genuine. Shea does such an authentic job of portraying what someone with her character’s illness goes through, it is astounding. Pamela Dubin is fun and flirty, and when the crazier side of things kicks in, it still works and doesn’t feel unnatural for the character. Even Alexander Cook as Grollman does a good job. Whatever issues there are with the writing of that character, it does not stop the actor from pouring his heart into it.
Abe And Phil’s Last Poker Game is a celebration of life, just before that life is set to expire. All the joys, frustrations, and everything in between come off realistically and credibly. The acting from the stellar cast is among their most excellent work, and all but one character is written as believable as possible. This is a must see!
Abe And Phil’s Last Poker Game (2018) Directed by Howard Weiner. Written by Howard Weiner. Starring Martin Landau, Paul Sorvino, Maria Dizzia, Pamela Dubin, Ann Marie Shea, Alexander Cook.