“Abe & Phil’s Last Poker Game” turned out to be Martin Landau‘s final film. Poignantly, the Academy Award-winning actor died at 89 last July, just months after the refreshing dramedy about facing life’s end premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival to positive reviews.
The movie’s plot centers on an improbable friendship — a bromance, if you will — that develops between two elderly men who meet at Cliffside Manor, an assisted living facility and nursing home. Abe Mandelbaum, played by Landau, is a fastidious retired physician who arrives with his wife Molly, a victim of Alzheimer’s. Abe quickly hits it off with the ensconced, loud and gregarious gambler Phil Nicoletti, played by Paul Sorvino (“Goodfellas,” “Law & Order”).
The men meet Angela (Maria Dizzia), a 35-year-old new nurse at Cliffside Manor who makes things more lively and enjoyable. However, Angela also complicates the new friends’ relationship when she reveals that she thinks one of them could be her biological father.
As unexpected as Abe and Phil’s odd couple friendship may be, it’s not nearly as surprising as the discovery that this movie was written and directed by a 73-year-old Harvard Medical School neurologist with no previous filmmaking experience.
Dr. Howard Weiner, whose research is aimed at curing multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease, spent his life in hospitals and labs, not Hollywood studios. The son of Viennese Jewish immigrants, he grew up in Denver and did part of his medical training in Israel. Today, he and his Israeli-born wife live in the Boston suburbs and are members of the Conservative Temple Emanuel in Newton.
Weiner’s closest connection to the entertainment business is his son Ron Weiner, a successful television comedy writer (“30 Rock,” “Arrested Development,” “Silicon Valley,” “Futurama”). This and other connections proved helpful in reaching potential producers.
After having written a number of books and making a 2011 documentary titled, “What is Life? The Movie,” Weiner, by then in his late 60s, decided to try his hand at scriptwriting.
“I like challenges,” the first-time filmmaker told The Times of Israel.
Weiner was very pleased with the casting of his film, and was honored to work with cooperative veteran actors.
“I was nervous about directing Marty and Paul, but they bonded with me and respected me. They were invested in helping me bring my vision to the screen,” Weiner said.
For Weiner, it was important to neither put old people on a pedestal, nor look down on them.
“The film looks at them straight on,” he said.
In a phone conversation, Landau’s daughter Susie Landau Finch said this was precisely what attracted her father to the project.
“He thought it was a look inside the reality of that situation. It dealt with the real concerns of people in that place and at that stage of their life. People like to write off old people, but this film doesn’t do that,” she told The Times of Israel.
Remarkably, sex permeates this film about old folks. Abe and Phil are like teenage boys, preoccupied with erections and conquests. Even at an advanced age, they talk dirty and do the deed — or at least give it their best effort.
“The sex issue in the film comes from my experience working with older people. I wanted the film to be very real and not ignore central life themes such as this,” Weiner said.
Abe and Phil’s lewd dialogue reflects their concern about impotency in the physical sense, but their inability to get or keep it up also has a metaphorical meaning.
“We all become more impotent in all senses as we get older. It’s about how to deal with that loss of potency,” Weiner said.
The filmmaker’s commitment to portraying old age in its fullest complexity results in a scene in which Landau’s character manually pleasures his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife, who has retained her sexual appetite despite having lost her cognitive faculties. The scene is shocking for both its emotional poignancy and cinematic boldness.
Finch said her father loved playing Abe, a role he felt “open, free and fluid in.” It was a leading role, unlike the many supporting ones for which he gained renown over the course of his long career.
Finch had the privilege of observing Landau closely as he lived with her for his final seven years, and she found him to be an example of how to age with dignity.
“He was an incredible trooper. He was sharp-witted until the end. He was lecturing on Shakespeare just two days before his unexpected death. His spirit and soul were young. He was still learning and mentoring young people, and he was heading into a new film,” she said.
When Landau first got the script for “Abe & Phil,” Finch feared the film’s title could be ominous.
“I remember thinking, ‘I don’t want it to be his last poker game,'” she said.
He was lecturing on Shakespeare two days before his unexpected death
Finch’s premonition turned out to be right, but she’s nonetheless happy that her father is receiving posthumous praise for his acting in the the film.
“It’s bittersweet,” she said.
From one of the earliest scenes, when Abe first meets Phil over a meal in the Cliffside Manor dining room and a women at the table keels over into her plate, death is a constant hovering presence. But it’s the lives of older people that truly animate this film.
“I am very emotionally moved by elderly people. They are magnificent vessels of life’s experience,” Weiner said.
“There is a very strong story in the life of old people. We all have that ahead of us — if we are lucky,” he said.