Set up faux-documentary style, older Roger (Boutsikaris) narrates his own story, showing up in the flashbacks beside his younger self and even interrupting scenes to correct the director’s “interpretation.” There are moments where the “director” interrupts Roger’s narration, particularly when Roger recounts falling in love with Ellen (Crystal Reed). The director wonders if Roger isn’t getting “distracted” from the main theme. These meta-interruptions reduce the flame, which works in the film’s favor.
The young Roger (Mike Faist), with a bristly mustache so big it has its own area code, discovers the joys of pinball while a student at the University of Wisconsin. He gets married, divorced, fired, and moves to New York with dreams of being a writer. He lands a job with the brand-new men’s magazine Gentlemen’s Quarterly. At random, he discovers a pinball machine in the lobby of a peep show. The illicit peeping going on behind the curtain holds no appeal. He’s here for the pinball machine. This is how he learns that pinball, the activity he pursued with no shame back in Wisconsin, is illegal in the city of New York City due to a very weird, seemingly personal vendetta against the machines by famed Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. (The game was thought to be Mob-owned and run, akin to gambling, and, worst of all, marketed to kids.) If you lived in New York City, where sin ran rampant in the streets, and you wanted to play a legal game of pinball, you had to drive to New Jersey.
This backstory is told in newsreel-type fragments, with scenes of NYPD doing “raids,” smashing pinball machines on the streets, newspaper headlines, and LaGuardia giving press conferences, all like it’s Chicago fighting organized crime in the 1920s. It’s absurd, so Roger decides to write about it for GQ, which he then expands into a book. He tracks down the original manufacturers to interview them, basically gathering evidence for the eventual showdown in 1976.
Alongside all this pinball activity is the romance with Ellen, a single mother, working as a secretary, painting at night, cautious about letting men into her life, and very upfront with Roger about what she wants, needs, and expects. She wants to be married. She wants a father for her 11-year-old son. If Roger isn’t up for all of that, then it would be best to just stop now. Roger gets it. The three become a makeshift little family. These scenes are played with attention to detail, and Ellen is as fleshed-out as Roger is (maybe even a little more). Their chemistry is believable and of the everyday regular-person variety: they make each other laugh, they try to be thoughtful, and each is invested in the other person’s potential. They mess up on occasion and try to do better, etc. It’s nice to see a human-sized romance played human-sized. I imagine this is harder to accomplish than it looks.