Paul Sorvino (left), Martin Landau and Maria Dizzia in “Abe and Phil’s Last Poker Game”
Paul Sorvino (left), Martin Landau and Maria Dizzia in “Abe and Phil’s Last Poker Game”

Landau comes up aces in ‘Last Poker Game,’ his final film

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of movies about horny young men. “Abe & Phil’s Last Poker Game” belongs to a decidedly smaller movie subgenre: horny old men.

But let’s not quibble about numbers, or size, which certainly doesn’t matter to the titular protagonists expertly played by Martin Landau and Paul Sorvino. Their overriding concern is frequency, or the lack of it.

More of a poignant end-of-life saga than a Borscht Belt comedy, “Abe & Phil’s Last Poker Game” is unexpectedly fixated on the sex act as the defining characteristic of male identity. To paraphrase Rabbi Hillel, “If I can’t perform, who am I? And if not now, when?”

But that’s imbuing Howard Weiner’s endearing portrait of two likable but desperate alter kockers with a Jewish slant that it doesn’t actually have. Notwithstanding a heartfelt performance by the late Martin Landau in his last great role and the inclusion of “Abe & Phil’s Last Poker Game” in the Jewish Film Institute’s two-day WinterFest, the film is agnostic about ethnic trappings.

“Abe & Phil’s Last Poker Game” screens at WinterFest Sunday, Feb. 11 at Alamo Drafthouse in San Francisco.

When his wife’s dementia reaches an advanced stage, Dr. Abe Mandelbaum (Landau) moves them out of their brownstone and into a remote retirement home called Cliffside. He is befriended almost immediately by Phil (Sorvino), an Italian extrovert and prolific bachelor who’s deeply, sadly nostalgic for the sex he used to enjoy in abundance.

Abe, a button-down type who always dresses in a sport coat, sweater and tie and insists on being addressed as Dr. Mandelbaum, loosens up around Phil. He relishes their ribald chats, for Molly (Ann Marie Shea) is no longer the conversational partner she once was.

Abe is still devoted to her, of course, and is adamant that Molly be allowed the one item that placates her outbursts and acts as a security blanket: her fur coat. (If this is a dig at the stock that doctor’s wives put in material possessions, it’s rather anachronistic.)

Meanwhile, a new nurse has come to work at the facility. Thoughtful, compassionate and eminently qualified, Angela (Maria Dizzia) is a solid addition to the staff. But she has her own agenda.

Angela was adopted and has been unsuccessful in locating her birth parents. An anonymous note tipped her off that her father lives at Cliffside, so here she is.

Writer-director Weiner, whose day job is Harvard professor of neurology, plausibly meshes Angela’s not-so-covert mission with Phil and Abe’s late-in-life friendship. All three are good people, or so we’re inclined to believe, who deserve to be happy.

The trio bonds in a healthy way, but the emotional center of the movie gradually shifts to Angela and the familial resolution she wants so badly. The unfortunate side effect is that both the director and the audience are distracted from confronting the unsettling fact that Phil and Abe — despite what they accomplished or achieved in their lives — desperately measure themselves at this stage on the basis of their sexual activity.

Of course, sex represents more than just the physical act to Abe and Phil. It’s a barometer of their vitality and aliveness, and a measuring stick that tracks their proximity to the end. And if it unleashes their vanity and pride, well, men will be men.

There are points along the way where “Abe & Phil’s Last Poker Game” becomes about love rather than sex. Landau and Sorvino do their utmost to minimize the sentimentality, with Steven Argila’s score picking up the slack.

There are also secrets and lies, which complicate the core relationships and give us something to contemplate beyond the ending that awaits every movie character who checks into a retirement home.

“Abe & Phil’s Last Poker Game” screens at 8:35 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 11 at Alamo Drafthouse in San Francisco. (90 minutes, rated R for sexual content and language)

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.