As a struggling student at the University of Wisconsin in the early 1970s, Chicago native Roger Sharpe found solace and stillness in the whirs and whistles of the local pub’s pinball machines. Years later, this wannabe ad man — who sought to become the next great American writer — found himself a young divorcee in New York wondering what his purpose would be.
Cue the ring-ring to rocket Roger back into a state of serenity to which some would say he lost hours but in which he would argue he gained focus. This time, it emanates from an adult novelty store that can peddle all the pornography it pleases … while the pinball is illegal. Yes, by fiat of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, pinball was banned in New York (and then other major U.S. cities) for decades; politicos saw it as a gateway mafia racket to take kids’ lunch money with rigged games. So as Roger tries to publish a book about the game he loves, he’s courted as its unlikely political savior. (“They named an airport after the bad guy,” Roger says. “So … good luck.”)
This would be enough setup for an atypical story of self-discovery, but co-directors / co-writers Austin Bragg and Meredith Bragg take Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game a step further. They present Roger’s story in faux-documentary style, with present-day Roger (Dennis Boutsikaris) attempting to dictate the direction he thinks the story should go — expensive songs and all. To this Roger, the journey is less about what he considers a footnote of history and more about his romance with Ellen (Crystal Reed), a single mother whose past plans went tilt.
In a nigh-unrecognizable transformation from his stunning turn as tough guy Riff in 2021’s West Side Story, Mike Faist portrays Roger as a young man. He’s essentially William H. Macy with a whiny, nasal pitch and a comically oversized mustache (described by Roger’s eventual colleague at a fledgling GQ as a “badge of testosterone”). He and Reed strike an honest, gradual and everyday chemistry as people who care deeply about each other — and Ellen’s son, Seth (Christopher Convery) — but are unsure of the conditions this free play at love might carry.
That’s what sustains the film. It’s certainly not Roger’s crusade to save pinball from the clutches of an arcane law that has generally been upheld for decades to avoid embarrassing city fathers. Until the last act, that crusade is the footnote present-day Roger would prefer. Beyond the brief documentary-like interlude that introduces insiders of the pinball world, there’s frankly not much momentum on that front — no sense of urgency to see David take on Goliath as we felt in the similarly esoteric Flash of Genius and its tale of intermittent windshield wipers. It also deprives screen time for a murderer’s row of that-guy character actors like Damian Young, Kenneth Tigar, Todd Susman and Michael Kostroff. And when Roger’s eventual defense of the game invokes allegorical homilies about making the choices you can with opportunities you’re given and defining life by the risks you take or don’t take, well … Pinball runs perilously close to the broken, dusty machine shoved somewhere in the corners of The Tender Bar.
Much like the game in its name, Pinball is charmingly antiquated and not terribly ambitious. You can always slap new names on the cabinet’s frame, but there’s not much room to mess with the plunger, flippers, bumpers and kickers. The Braggs know enough not to tinker with the mechanics of a more traditional, feel-good story of perseverance and persistence, and they deliver a movie that neither lights up the playfield nor slowly sinks into the drain.