Review: ‘Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game’

The mesmerizing silver ball, banned for decades in New York for its perils, pings from bumper to bumper in a film that tilts toward the underwhelming.

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By Glenn Kenny

Steven Spielberg’s 2021 “West Side Story” had a lot going for it, including a cast of bright newcomers to the screen. Particularly outstanding was the wiry Mike Faist, who crackled in the role of aggrieved gang member Riff.

Now Faist has the lead role, sort of, in a new comedy based on the real-life story of Roger Sharpe, who helped overturn New York’s ban on pinball in the mid-1970s.

As a vehicle for Faist’s talents, “Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game,” written and directed by Austin and Meredith Bragg, here credited as the Bragg Brothers, is underwhelming. For one thing, there are two Roger Sharpes. The older one is embodied by the reliable character actor Dennis Boutsikaris (“Better Call Saul”), who narrates under the pretense of giving an on-camera interview. Sharpe interacts with his younger self, who moves to New York in the ’70s seeking a career, only to learn that his favorite pastime is illegal there.

Sharpe also falls in love, gets a job, etc., activities that are interrupted by offscreen directives that he get back to pinball. The fourth wall isn’t broken; it doesn’t even exist. The movie strives for a knowing, amiable tone. It achieves a cutesy, slight one instead.

And the film’s meta mode sometimes works against it. A snippet of a famous song plays early on, then cuts off, because, we’re told, it’s too expensive to include, a revelation that highlights the many ways in which the Braggs can’t transcend their budget.

While Faist must hide his light under the bushel of an ostentatious 1970s mustache, he, like Boutsikaris and the love interest Crystal Reed, musters up noteworthy charm. But not much else.

Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on most major platforms.

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