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DeLillo's 'Game 6' is painfully good

In terms of demographic appeal, ''Game 6" has an uncommonly narrow strike zone: literary-minded Red Sox fanatics who recall with awful clarity exactly where they were on the night of Oct. 25, 1986. Within those limits, though, it's an inside-the-park home run -- a small, lovingly overwritten comic drama about fate, failure, and primal longing. To put it in words a Sox fan would understand, the movie hurts good.

Michael Keaton plays Nicky Rogan, who's a bit of a conundrum: a Manhattanite and a Sox fan, a kid from Hell's Kitchen who has grown up to be a celebrated playwright. He awakes on Oct. 25 looking forward to two things: the opening of his new drama on Broadway and the sixth game of the World Series at Shea Stadium. The Sox are up three games to two against the Mets, Nicky's last few plays have been hits. What could go wrong?

Since he's spent his life rooting for the world's only existential baseball team, he knows the answer to that one: Everything.

Wearing a Mephistophelean goatee, his eyes constantly checking the exits, Keaton is in excellent form as a smart, egotistical cad whose life is about to roll between his legs. Nicky's wife (Catherine O'Hara) has hired a prominent divorce lawyer, and his teenage daughter, Laurel (Ari Graynor), has only loving contempt for him. When he's not sleeping with his producer (Bebe Neuwirth), he's flirting with any woman who crosses his path, including a willowy waitress/actress named Paisley Porter (model/actress Shalom Harlow).

Karmic comeuppance isn't just in the air, it is the air. The screenplay for ''Game 6" has been written by novelist Don DeLillo -- the first time this literary giant has stooped to the medium of film -- and it won't surprise readers of ''White Noise" or ''Cosmopolis" that Manhattan is painted as a sprawling three-ring circus on the brink of collapse. Stuck in a midtown cab (the hero takes taxis everywhere, always telling uninterested immigrant drivers about his youthful cabbie days), Nicky and a friend have to bail out when a steam pipe explodes, spewing asbestos into the atmosphere. The city is one immense vehicular snarl, and, in the script's most strained conceit, the voice of a poetically inclined traffic reporter serves as a Greek chorus.

Nicky hears that an influential theater critic named Steven Schwimmer (Robert Downey Jr.) has it out for him, and we see the catastrophic effect this ''Phantom of Broadway" has had on another playwright (Griffin Dunne, quivering like jelly). We also meet Schwimmer himself -- a psychotic loner who lives in an industrial loft space with a Colt pistol on his nightstand. I don't think Frank Rich lives this way (I know I don't), but as an author's revenge on critics, it's hilarious.

''Game 6" ends, as it must, with Nicky in a packed New York bar watching the world as he knows it come once more to an end. This may be especially painful for Sox fans, since director Michael Hoffman replays it all, from Schiraldi to Stanley to the cataclysmic final error. As someone who was in similar circumstances -- at a party on the Upper East Side, rooting for the visiting team -- I recognize this psychic landscape: the foolish giving in to hope, the long walk to one's apartment yelling at an unheeding God. Even after the triumph of two years ago, it feels like horrible justice.

Worse -- or better -- it feels like home. ''Game 6" is a tiny movie that touches on big things, and while DeLillo's dialogue leans toward the purple and the penultimate scenes are just silly, the final image is exactly right: a group of sudden comrades huddled around a TV, watching an endless looping replay of a moment that, oddly, sustains their faith in the order of things. The ball goes through the baseman's legs. It always will.

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