As far as late-in-life career changes go, 72-year-old neurologist and Harvard professor Howard Weiner could’ve done much worse than making his directorial debut with The Last Poker Game. In fact, the director—whose son Ron is an Emmy-winning comedy writer for shows like 30 Rock and Silicon Valley—finds refreshingly candid humor in a movie that could’ve amounted to another Robert De Niro-esque, similarly late-in-life career embarrassment.
The film stars Martin Landau and Paul Sorvino as nursing home residents with gas still in the tank, Landau a doctor (“Not a mister!”) named Abe and Sorvino a horny gambler named Phil, the two quickly and wonderfully establishing a believable chemistry with Landau as the nerd and Sorvino the smooth-talker. Abe’s wife has late-stage dementia and Phil’s cataracts are the least of his health problems, but that doesn’t stop them from whining about how they can’t get erections anymore or how caretakers treat them like children.
Age has only made Landau’s lean expressions leaner, more noticeably chosen and thought-out, and his performance (be it for his wife or for the nursing home staff) is indicative of broader themes about aging masculinity and how it’s threatened. To allow this, The Last Poker Game basically ignores Abe’s wife (Ann Marie Shea) to go gallivant with the boys as they reckon with their manhood’s extinguishing relevancy. Shea is tasked with the rarely accomplished feat of capturing dementia on screen in a way that imbues it with the terror, confusion and sadness it deserves without tipping over due to clichéd weight. As viewers, we’re easily made uncomfortable by the possibility that an actor has been exploited, like an elderly cymbal-banging monkey. Shea reaches that point almost immediately, a wasted non-character until she shares an incredibly intimate sex scene with Landau that will make even the most jaded movie viewer flustered by a couple in their 80s seeking the female orgasm.
The film’s plot splits down two paths that never meet in a way either convincing or satisfying: One is the duo’s Porky’s-esque plan to get laid (a tall order for two men with complete erectile dysfunction) and the plight of adopted nurse Angela (Maria Dizzia) who’s applied at this specific home because she’s received a note saying that her birth father resides there. The former is surprisingly sweet while the latter surprisingly hokey. Dizzia does well in an unforgiving role, but her entire plotline (which is often dropped or ignored) is obviously The Last Poker Game movie at its weakest.
The film’s highlight is the swaggering Sorvino. More charming with age, like wine or scoundrels, he manages to enrapture without pandering, entertain without sacrifice or compromise. His character’s vulgar wisecracks are only sometimes soaked in melancholy; we believe the combination without a second’s hesitation. His lamentations over his diabetes and erectile dysfunction are summed up by “I’m an Italian with sweet blood and a soft dick.” Understanding the strange relationship between the two men, especially when Abe meets a woman who awakens his long-dormant penis, is to understand a certain generation’s obsolescing sense of masculinity. It isn’t so different as men age: There’s still definition of self through sexual achievement.
Only, The Last Poker Game clings to these ideas in a much sadder, more nuanced way than in something like the aforementioned De Niro boner joke movies. Phil needs Abe to tell him about the sex he could have, the hardness of his dick, all the details. He needs to feel young again, to feel like a guy again. In this need, the film develops a fascinating, pseudo-cuckolding relationship between these men, achieving sexual satisfaction vicariously—very weird in the context of traditional man-ness.
Once the film moves on from this, its energy flickers. The pacing sputters and hops, making health issues that never really seemed like issues suddenly flare up and catch us off guard, and too much time is spent on whether or not Angela is one of the friends’ daughter. All we care about is their dirty jokes. The Last Poker Game is an unexpectedly warm movie, shot with a honed sense of visual storytelling—especially given the director’s newness with all this—and an eye for textures, but one which flames out into a terribly overwrought ending. Still, I’ll take Sorvino and Landau selling cheese over De Niro cutting it any day.
Director: Howard Weiner
Writers: Howard Weiner
Starring: Martin Landau, Paul Sorvino, Maria Dizzia
Release Date: Premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter..