Friday, March 17, 2023

Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game

Playing pinball is sort of like the video game experience, except the ball and flippers are actually real. The game seems cool in a retro way now, but it was some of the most fun you could have for a quarter in the early1970s. Unfortunately, it was still banned in New York City, thanks to the Puritanism of the Progressive reform movement. Inexperienced GQ journalist Roger Sharpe played a major role in legalizing the game. Sharpe’s campaign for pinball respectability is quite charmingly dramatized in Austin & Meredith Bragg’s Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game, an MPI-supported film, which releases today on VOD and in select theaters.

As a divorced twenty-five-year-old with hardly a quarter to his name, Sharpe came to the City with vague dreams and limited prospects. However, when he finally found a pinball machine, in an adult bookstore, the college pinball wizard started to get his groove back. Then the store was raided—for the pinball machines, not the porn.

By this time, Sharpe had secured a junior writing position at
GQ. He also started dating Ellen, a very pretty but somewhat older single-mother working in the same office building. First, Sharpe parlays his pinball outrage into his first major GQ piece. After that, he is able to secure a book deal for his illustrated pinball history. In the process, he interviews all the founding fathers of the much-maligned pinball industry. As a result, he starts to make a name for himself as a pinball expert. Soon, the trade industry group covering pinball approaches Sharpe to testify on behalf of the game in front of the New York City Council, but Sharpe is leery of potential negative attention.

Given the title, it is probably a safe bet that Sharpe “saves the game,” or at least contributes to the repeal of New York’s ban. However, the Braggs still make the drama surprisingly pacey and entertqainingly grabby. Their use of the older, third-wall-breaking Sharpe to offer sly commentary on the unfolding action works much better than in previous films. Thanks to Dennis Boutsikaris’s portrayal of the somewhat more mature and graying Sharpe (who was onboard with the film, as an executive producer), all the exposition is weirdly fun and amusing. Frankly, we could listen to an entire multi-part documentary, featuring Boutsikaris adopting Sharpe voice, to talk about pinball history.

Yet, throughout the film, the Braggs give equal weight and significance to Sharpe’s relationship with Ellen and her son, Seth. As Sharpe, Boutsikaris explicitly says there are things that are more important than pinball, in almost exactly those terms. That means the younger Sharpe has more to do once he “saves the game,” which is a refreshing break from the typical climatic testimony cliché.

As Roger and Ellen, Mike Faist and Crystal Reed (also very good in
Swamp Thing) have insanely appealing chemistry, right from the start. Their relationship necessarily has its ups and downs (otherwise this would be a pretty dull film), but viewers immediately start rooting for them. It is also worth noting the work ethic and values espoused by Ellen, who at one point explains how she grinds away as a secretary to provide for her son, in order to avoid resorting to welfare. That is really quite something to hear in a film.

Faist and Reed are terrific handling the grounded romantic comedy. Bryan Batt and Mike Doyle also deliver a lot of snarky laughs as Harry Coulianos and Jack Haber, the now legendary art director and editor of
GQ. Among other things, Pinball nicely recreates the groovy milieu of 1970s magazine publishing.

is a fast-paced, crowd-pleasing film, but there is a serious point to it. There are a lot of unjust laws that were originally passed for dubious reasons that state and local governments continue to enforce. The Institute for Justice constantly challenges unfair professional licensing laws that were often designed as barriers against black economic participation during the Jim Crow era. Just because it is a “law,” does not mean in is logical or just. Clearly, that was the case with New York’s pinball ban.

Regardless, the Braggs get the tone just right throughout the film. It all looks very 1970s, including young Sharpe’s unwieldy mustache. This is one of the best rom-coms and “sports” films in quite a while, because it holds wider significance, but never gets caught up in its “message.” Instead, it stays focused on its characters and their circumstances. Very highly recommended,
Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game opens today (3/17) in Brooklyn, at the Kent Theater.