Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game 2023 Movie Review
The story of Roger Sharpe, the young midwesterner who overturned New York City’s 35-year-old ban on pinball machines.
Everything from the title to the opening scene’s structure sets up Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game as a documentary about Roger Sharpe, a pinball arcade enthusiast who fought New York City law proving that it is not a game of chance or a means for children to gamble, overturning their ban in several states. Written and directed by The Bragg Brothers, the film opens with the makings of a talking head interview where Roger Sharpe questions whether the filmmakers want to make a movie about this subject. However, it’s not Roger Sharpe but character actor Dennis Boutsikaris.
As the narrative progresses in flashback form with a younger mustached Roger Sharpe (West Side Story‘s Mike Faist in a role far removed from that stunning debut, excellent here with a midwestern, lightweight comedic and nerdy charm) who falls for hopeful writer Ellen (Crystal Reed), putting those ambitions on the back burner to provide for her with an 11-year-old son, fake documentary Roger instantly becomes labeled the prime reason that the story is fixated on this burgeoning relationship more than pinball machines. In some cases, the filmmakers lean too hard into pretending these interviews are real (especially in the ending credits scene), but the idea is relatively easy to appreciate.
There’s much about Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game that would be more effective if this was coming from the actual Roger Sharpe, but the idea that to the real people, their legacies are defined by something entirely different than what the subject of a film is; that is a unique angle for that type of storytelling.
The downside is that there is quite a bit about Roger’s relationship (although Mike Faist and Crystal Reed do have matching oddball chemistry that works even during the cliché bits of whether they will stay together or not), his early days as an aspiring writer, and the inevitable courtroom battle to legalize pinball machines that comes across as simple and bland. Even the magazine company he writes for is filled with outdated stereotypes and overly quirky personalities lacking character.
The inner debate within Roger is slightly more engaging, as he is a man that has to decide if his hobbies and passions are going to stay that way or if he is going to be more responsible and focus on building a new marriage and family with Ellen. As such, the movie is also about turning that enthusiasm into something that can pay the bills and provide. This culminates with a pinball machine demonstration and expended speech functioning as a metaphor for taking risks, that’s tough to decide if it’s corny or clever. Perhaps it’s both (the symbolism of a flipper is admittedly spot on).
Since a good portion of Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game also follows Roger interviewing various subjects about his book on the history of pinball machines and various games (the concept comes full circle), there is also a stimulating dive into those topics that, oddly enough, does supplement the fake documentary aspect. If this movie is a pinball machine, the characters and story don’t rise to the top, but it does have Mike Faist’s charisma and a refreshing biopic angle. Its cheesy admiration for boldly living life fits within a sincere appreciation for pinball machines and their specific mechanics.