- Robert Downey Jr. is great fun as a deranged theater critic.
For most of January 2005, Michael Keaton was on the road pimping White Noise, the psychological thriller in which he stared at TV screens and pretended to be scared of static. Little wonder, then, that Keaton spent most of that couch time selling not his big-studio comeback, but his tiny-budgeted throwback, Game 6, set in Manhattan during the 1986 World Series. The title, of course, refers to the game between the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox, during which BoSox first baseman Bill Buckner allowed an easy-out grounder from Mookie Wilson to roll under his glove and into the mystery books. Game 6 is set in the hours before the contest, over which Keaton's character, a playwright named Nicky Rogan, obsesses to the exclusion of almost everything else in a life that's slowly, beautifully, perfectly going to shit. This is a man who would prefer to watch a ballgame in a bar than his own opening-night play in a packed house; he's committed to the point of needing to be committed.
Unlike the poorly chosen studio product under which Keaton had buried his career -- Jack Frost remains among the most inexplicable choices ever made by an actor, living or otherwise -- Keaton saw in Game 6 something approaching critical redemption and publicly treated it as such. It possessed all the credibility and inspiration he needed to jump-start a dispiriting career: a respected director (Restoration's Michael Hoffman), a revered writer (novelist Don DeLillo), and a righteous supporting cast (Bebe Neuwirth as the financier/gal pal, Griffin Dunne as the washed-up writer, Catherine O'Hara as the would-be ex-wife, and Robert Downey Jr. as the bonkers critic). It would be the thing that rescued him from being remembered, if at all, as a man who slid headfirst into mediocrity and hugged it like a cool pillow in August.
Yet after the movie's premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2005 -- where it played in one of the biggest rooms to an audience that seemed genuinely tickled and moved -- Game 6 disappeared. It screens now, at this late date, almost as an afterthought, with limited distribution and almost no promotion -- a tragedy, as Nicky Rogan likes to say. Keaton had good reason to be proud of this work; it contains his best performance in a decade, since Multiplicity at least and perhaps as far back as Clean and Sober eight years before that. And it could have been a debacle, this adaptation of DeLillo's one and only screenplay, languishing among the author's papers in a University of Texas library.
Translating DeLillo to the big screen is like trying to pass a boulder through the digestive tract; the guy's writing is as dense as anything that orbits the sun, and the idea of reading his books is more fun than actually reading them. That Game 6 is a triumphant piece of work -- cynical without succumbing to glib pessimism, funny without going for the cheap and easy laugh, surreal without going all soft in the head -- is testament not only to the writing, but to Keaton's willingness to dig into the material. He's at his best when playing this close to unhinged -- the sane, smart man a hairsbreadth away from losing his shit completely and permanently. It's something Keaton's been loath to do for a long while, for whatever private reason successful actors have when they consciously tank their careers.
Keaton thrives in this smoky, seedy, noxious, cerebral atmosphere, surrounded by the nutty, the wacky, the damaged, and the obsessed. As Nicky -- surely a stand-in for the author himself, who wrote for the stage before penning the screenplay around 1991 -- Keaton does all he can to keep it together, just as he and his existence are on the verge of splintering into a thousand little pieces. He's casual with DeLillo's formal dialogue, refusing to trip over the writer's ham-fisted phrases (he calls his estranged daughter "steely-eyed" over a greasy-spoon salad). He embraces the severe formality of the work, underscoring the deadpan dialogue with that wicked glint that faded long ago. Keaton makes Nicky the most human of DeLillo's creations: You can smell his desperation and anxiety -- the absolute fear that comes not just with the public debut of a new work, but with knowing that your team is so close, yet so far away from being good, much less immortal.
Keaton's so good, you almost forget how wonderful Downey is as Steven Schwimmer, the feared critic nicknamed "The Exterminating Angel" for his scabrous writing, known to kill a play before it's emerged from the womb. Here, DeLillo tips his hand too much: He's obviously terrified of critics (Steven's image looms everywhere in the movie, from magazine covers to taxicab roofs), but he also finds them repugnant, turning Steven into an insecure, damaged freak prone to wearing elaborate disguises during his nights out. But Downey, always excellent even in pandering mediocrities, finds the warmth beneath the scarred surface; his eventual meeting with Nicky is worth the whole endeavor, which almost slipped through our fingers like a routine ground ball to first.