David Mamet's early play, "Lakeboat," written more than 25 years ago, was a hit at the Sunset Strip's Tiffany Theater in 1994. This screen version, directed by frequent Mamet actor Joe Mantegna, is so-so, a labor of love often laborious, yet also sometimes touching and perceptive, filling the screen with a raft of splendid actors.
"Lakeboat" is based on Mamet's experience in a summer job aboard a Great Lakes steel freighter while in graduate school. It is a warm, affectionate reminiscence of the men he worked with, mostly middle-aged or older guys on their jobs most of their lives. They are gruff types with good hearts who come to accept the initially insecure Dale (Tony Mamet, the playwright's younger brother), an English literature grad student.
Mamet lovingly captures their idiosyncrasies, humorous behavior and camaraderie that he suggests fails to hide the loneliness of men. They would be lost without the companionship on the freighter, the source of whatever meaning their lives possess. Charles Durning is the Seaway Queen's crusty first mate, George Wendt his conscientious second-in-command. Denis Leary, the youngest of the group, is the ship's fireman, and old hands are played by Peter Falk (as a pier worker), Robert Forster, J.J. Johnston and Jack Wallace.
Forster's Joe, a 33-year veteran of the freighters, is Dale's roommate, and "Lakeboat's" key figure. Its best moments occur when, in seeing that Dale has his life ahead of him, Joe realizes how much of his own has passed; all this is implicit and is played beautifully by Forster.
Joe is the one man who bares his soul to Dale; the others, mainly likable in their strength and vulnerability, are on hand mostly for their garrulousness. This presents a problem: These guys love to talk. Mamet was able to capture the rhythms and poetry of their often profane chatter from the beginning of his career, but the chatter grows tedious.
Not helping matters is that Mantegna dramatizes a number of the men's recollections in a series of vignettes, which instead of providing relief and variety, breaks the mood and pace of their storytelling and flattens rather than enriches this comedy-drama.
Similarly, a running gag featuring an unbilled Andy Garcia as a shipmate is amusing at first but wears thin after a while. (This gag may in fact have worked better had there been no other digressions.)
It's easy to imagine "Lakeboat" working better on stage and this version being more engaging on the tube. "Lakeboat" requires its audiences to embrace it as lovingly as Mamet and Mantegna embrace its men, but it's a lot to ask.
MPAA rating: R, for strong language and some sexual content. Times guidelines: The language at times is extremely crude, especially in regard to women and sex.
Charles Durning: Skippy
Peter Falk: Pierman
Robert Forster: Joe
J.J. Johnston: Stan
Denis Leary: Fireman
Tony Mamet: Dale
Jack Wallace: Fred
George Wendt: Collins
A Panorama Entertainment presentation in association with Oregon Trail Films and One Vibe Entertainment production. Producer-director Joe Mantegna. Producers Eric. R. Epperson, Tony Mamet and Morris Ruskin. Executive producer Alan James. Screenplay by David Mamet; based on his play. Cinematographer Paul Sarossy. Editor Christopher Cibelli. Music Bob Mamet. Production designer Thomas Carnegie. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
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