Oh, to have the power of Steven Schwimmer. The fearsome theater critic played by Robert Downey Jr. in Game 6 is so influential that one bad review from him can kill the career of even a respected playwright like Nicky Rogan (Michael Keaton). Schwimmer has to wear disguises and carry a gun when he goes to a play because the entire New York theater community hates him. He lives in a rundown building without electricity, a telephone or a toilet so that he can stay hidden, yet his opinions are so important that his (obscured) face is on the cover of New York magazine. Most critics would kill for that kind of influence.
But this is 1986, before the rise of the Internet, and back then the New York Times' Frank Rich really was that powerful. Specifically, it's October 25, 1986, the date of the sixth game of the World Series pitting the Boston Red Sox against the New York Mets. It's also the opening night of Nicky's new play, which he fears is about to be eviscerated by Schwimmer. The film follows Nicky over the course of this fateful day, as he travels around the city by various taxis (driven by cabdrivers of diverse ethnicities), visiting the important people in his life and agonizing over whether the Sox will win and whether the critic will give him a bad review.
Written 15 years ago by novelist and playwright Don DeLillo (see interview, Las Vegas Weekly, March 23), Game 6 has the feel of a tossed-off, long-lost work exhumed because the writer has gained a certain cachet. What might have been fresh and new when it was first written has turned into a period piece, but Game 6 doesn't have much to say about its era; aside from a few clothing and hair choices and, of course, the game itself, there isn't much to indicate that we're not in the present day.
DeLillo and journeyman director Michael Hoffman (The Emperor's Club, Soapdish) load the film with oppressive symbolism, and the most over-determined symbol is the game itself, which naturally becomes a metaphor for Nicky's entire life. If the Red Sox can only win and reverse their curse, his play will succeed, his troubled marriage will be saved and his relationship with his daughter will be healthy again. By the time Nicky winds up in a bar watching the game instead of watching his play, it's moved on from being the subtext to the text; Nicky plainly says that his life hinges on the team's ability to pull off a victory.
That kind of thudding, obvious symbolism is the film's biggest concern and its primary problem. The cabdriver who accompanies Nicky to the bar speaks almost exclusively in cryptic pearls of wisdom, as does the radio traffic reporter we periodically hear, who never offers any actual traffic information. An asbestos leak and numerous traffic jams each impart their own metaphorical messages, but it's the game that ties everything together with its simple, schematic allegory.
The dialogue is often stilted and stagy, but Keaton carries most of it off fairly well, and there are some great actors in small supporting roles (Catherine O'Hara and Bebe Neuwirth shine in single-scene parts). But not everyone can sell DeLillo's repetitive, circular dialogue, which can easily become as cloying as the symbolism. The one area in which the film is an unequivocal success is in its portrayal of the legendary game; even a non-sports fan like me knows the outcome, but there's still a great deal of suspense in watching Nicky watch the Sox.
Downey hams it up as Schwimmer, but by the time he and Nicky collide, most of the air has gone out of the film. Given his reputation for savagery, it's likely the ruthless critic would have left Game 6 feeling a little cheated.