Granted, the subject matter of this movie is enough to rope me in immediately since I love old pinball machines, but even if you’re unfamiliar with the history, lore & mystique surrounding pinball machines, this film works wonderfully as a low-key optimistic movie about people making positive choices for themselves.
Yes, filmmaker brothers Austin & Meredith Bragg have taken the historic footnote story of how GQ writer Roger Sharpe helped to end the ban on pinball machines in NYC back in the 1970s and have turned it into a very entertaining tale structured as a documentary, although even that part is fictional.
Similar to American Spendor, we have a current-day Roger Sharpe talking to an off-camera director or directly to us during the narrative following the younger Roger (a wonderful Mike Faist) as he journeys from falling in love with pinball in college to a journalism career in NYC and a romance with young single mom Ellen (Crystal Reed). But unlike American Splendor which intercut the real Harvey Pekar into the Paul Giamatti version, our current day Sharpe is played by Dennis Boutsikaris, made up to appear as a dead ringer for the real Sharpe, if you care.
And it works – Boutskaris’ narration as well as his faux arguments with the director over which direction the film is heading works well comically as well as keeps a sense of the historic context of what wer’re watching. And first time fearure makers the Braggs have a fantastic visual sense – the set designs, color palette, wardrobe and especially Faist’s monster mustache give us the best visual reproducton of the mid-70s since probably Dazed & Confused. Small character roles like his fellow GQ staffers or the pinball company execs are cast perfectly with character actor who look the part – the attention to detail is mpeccable, as well as the choices made both in structuring the script and in the dialogue.
Faist & Reed also have wonderful onscreen chemistry. Faist can pull off the poignant moments as well as the comic ones, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that he’s a lauded stage actor when you see how well he uses his gangly body to melt into his character. This guy ought to be going onto a great acting career. His romance with Reed is cute but not saccharine, and plays into part of Sharpe’s defense of pinball to the NYC council as a game of skill and not a game of chance, which is why LaGuardia had outlawed pinball decades earlier as a gambling device.
You choose what to aim at and shoot for during a pinball game – what targets? What bonus? How will you get to the free game, or extra ball, or can you turn the machine over? With flipper skill, you can carom the ball, cradle it to perfect a shot… and like Sharpe did in his demonstration for the city council, nail a plunger shot just so in order to complete a set of targets. Sharpe applies it to life choices – the ball is always going to drain, so pick your best shot.
Sharpe went from GQ writer to pinball designer and consultant, as well as marriage with Ellen and more kids. The film depicts how the publishers gutted a lot of the history & interviews with pinball company magnates out of his 1977 coffee table book. Not sure if it ever got into a later editon, but since I own a copy of Harry McKeown’s Pinball Portfolio book from 1976, there are a lot of other books on the subject out there.
And like I said, I love old pinball machines, several of which are shown in the movie, either played or just in the background. Nerdy Jim recognized a lot of ’em, like Williams “Big Ben,” a favorite of mine back at the old Midland Mall arcade “Aladdin’s Castle” in the Rhode Island of 1976. I got a Gottlieb “Ice Revue” (1965) as a bar-mitzvah present, at a price of $150 from a vending machine seller up on Federal Hill. (Clearly no mob involvement at all. None!). It got sold when my parents sold the house and I moved across the country. Alas, I no longer have it. Recently I saw “Ice Revue” beautifully restored at a game/pool table store and the dude wanted $4500 for it. For Sharpe, the Holy Grail machine was Gottlieb’s “Cow Poke” from the same era, a machine featuring wonderful animated backglass props of a mule kicking someone. The older machines with the mechanical score reels, with the analog circuits and relays, with actual bells for sounds – are preferable to the 1980s and on electronic games with the LED scoreboards. But the playfield design and backglass art remains a wonderful time capsule of pop culture. For some guys, it’s the love of changing car designs. I prefer pinball games, I guess.
While Sharpe has a basement filled with a bunch of actual old machines, I’ll probably take the cheaper route of a virtual pinball table loaded with classic games at some point when I feel like blowing several thousand dollars on myself. That way I’ll get Ice Revue back – along with Cow Poke, Big Ben, Fireball, Kings & Queens, Eight Ball Deluxe…and anything else I can load into it.
That is, before my ball drains. Thank you and try the veal.